Monday, March 21, 2005

When does death take place?

I recently realized that the book I am working on, "What does it mean to be human?" was not going to be much if I did not work with someone who is medically trained and a bioethicist. That was when I met Dr. Joy Riley, the area director of the Center for Bioethics and the Culture, a Christian network that is concerned for the human future.

While we were doing some planning of the book a few weeks ago Joy raised the thorny question that is before Christians and the whole culture today of when death occurs. I sat and listened, fascinated, for ten or fifteen minutes as she outlined all the complexities that have now crept in as a result of medical advance, new techniques for recovering individuals from what were once terminal conditions, and so forth.

Before she had talked to me I had known enough about this topic to speak sweepingly and get into real trouble. Now I realize just how little I do know, how complex this issue is, and how careful we need to be when assessing death-related issues. This concern has now been highlighted by the Terri Schiavo case from Florida, which in the last few days has become a political football in the "life" debate, with everyone including the Congress weighing in.

Yesterday evening, with the help of the press, the internet, various cable channels, and watching Congress on C-SPAN, I tried to get a handle on what this is all about because I could not (and still cannot) work out how much is concern for the good of the patient, and how much is the snowballing of a family feud over the treatment of a woman who is tragically caught in a limbo somewhere between living and dying.

As I watched the congressional debate I guessed it was a microcosm of the wider debate that is taking place, with moments of lucidity and powerful insight being punctuated by partially informed passion, playing to the political gallery back home, and oceans of rhetoric. This actually was not a debate, but it was two sides lobbing verbal grenades, of which little notice was being taken. It was fascinating to hear an MD who is also a congressman speaking about the care he needed to take as a medical professional who had not examined the patient, and then to listen to the rant that came from the speaker immediately after him, and which totally ignored the doctor's caution.

The issue at stake here is one that is going to dog us increasingly in the years ahead. It seems that Mrs. Schiavo has been for so long in a persistent vegitative state that the likelihood of any recovery is minimal, and circumstances like this will grow more common. Her condition probably means that here higher brain is no longer functioning, and all that is alive is the lower functions that control existence. The question is whether she is dead or whether she is alive ro whether she is somewhere between the two -- and what that place is.

The woman's parents and siblings are convinced that she is responsive to their presence, while the majority of the physicians who have examined her have suggested that the only responses she makes are reflexive actions. In this instance a place seems to have been reached where family love and sentiment are playing as significant a role as medical insight and analysis. I am convinced that ever side, including the much maligned husband, wants wants is best for this poor lady, but "soft" evidence and "hard" evidence have come crashing up against one another. Maybe this is a peculariarly postmodern dilemma because "soft" data is considered as valid as "hard" evidence.

Joy Riley is helping me see that whatever your religious affiliation or faith commitment, Christian or ortherwise, there are seldom simple solutions in cases like this. What this does is raise again the issues that our culture is avoiding about what it means to be human, when does human life begin, and when does it end. We are addressing the symptoms and not the underlying causes of our travail.

The question I was not hearing addressed in Congress last night was whether this woman is alive or not. Is a persistent vegetative state human life or is it something else? When the higher activities of the brain give out, what does that do to our humanity? Is Mrs. Schiavo living or is she existing? The questions are endless, but we who are serious about life need to be addressing them with informed reason and in light of biblical principles, remembering that there probably are no easy rule of thumb answers to such far-reaching questions.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Clarifying the Hermeneutical Challenge

This is a response to Roland Fulmer that is part of a discussion going on on the listserv,

I think you are making good points, which engage with this situation and help us to explore the challenge of the hermeneutic within the context of a wider forum. There are, in fact, a multiplicity of hermeneutics out there, as has been pointed our consistently by Prof. Anthony Thistleton (and others) in the various works on the topic he has produced over the last 30-40 years. (Thistleton's most recent book, New Horizons in Hermeneutics was published in 1997 and is available through

It is true, I think, that living as we do in the wake of the Enlightenment, much of our scholarship and comprehension (whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or secular) has been shaped and formed within this "bubble." One of the tasks before us is to be reviewing what has happened, and to be asking some fundamental questions of it. For example, I believe that mainstream evangelical Christianity is a legitimate development from pre-Reformation approaches as the church attempted to understand its faith within an Enlightenment-shaped culture. I am also sure that as we move into the post-Enlightenment period we will inevitably be able to see blind spots that were not an appropriate development of catholic faith within faithful evangelicalism -- and these need to be corrected if we are to be disciples of truth.

However, if we think of church tradition as the environment within which the faith was legitimately "contained," and I use this word cautiously, we will see that there are a variety of understandings functioning within that environment, but though history there were always others that appeared attractive, but ultimately led off into cul-de-sacs and no through roads. Meanwhile, as the Gospel encountered different cultures, societies, and the particularities of succeeding eras, etc., and as the churches sought to interpret the faith into those settings, a series of hermeneutical traditions each dependent upon past faithfulness developed. Also, the on going life of the church developed healthy mechanisms which filtered out hermeneutical approaches that were inappropriate for to what broadly might be called orthodoxy. This happened over time and under the sovereignty of God, for orthodoxy by its very nature is self-correcting (This is something Thomas Oden explored in his most recent book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy).

If I were to talk about hermeneutical approaches that are "traditional," it is to this stable of traditions that I would be referring. This stable of approaches stands, I believe, in contradistinction to the variety of emergent approaches that have emerged since World War Two. These are, directly or indirectly, related to the recent phenomenon of deconstructionism. Deconstructionism is understood to be a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a particular text.

"Basing itself in language analysis, it seeks to "deconstruct" the ideological biases (gender, racial, economic, political, cultural) and traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious 'truths.' Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then define, reality has led to various forms of domination - of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc. Like postmodernism, deconstructionism finds concrete experience more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes any attempts to produce a history, or a truth. In other words, the multiplicities and contingencies of human experience necessarily bring knowledge down to the local and specific level, and challenge the tendency to centralize power through the claims of an ultimate truth which must be accepted or obeyed by all" (

The academic study of literature (in which my wife is involved as a professor of French), has begun to recognize flaws in the essence of deconstruction, even if there are some helpful things that might be gained by what it brings to the table. However, while there is some continuity in this approach, overwehelmingly there is a great deal more discontinuity. It is this discontinuity that has been upsetting the apple cart in the churches and beyond, particularly in its opposition to any notion that there is such a thing as universal truth - notice that the word "truths" in the definition above is put in parentheses.

If we are to be people of truth, devoted to follow in the footsteps of the One who is the "way, truth, and life, then the hermeneutical challenge before us is huge, and we side-step it at our own peril.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Hermeneutical Forum

One of the most important elements of being a student of the future is being able to grasp lessons history teaches us. Westerners have now created a culture in which the past does not matter, and we live from day to day -- making it up as we go along. Futurist Stephen Bertman wrote several years ago that "a technological culture... inevitably severs its people from the past, depriving them of historical and spiritual perspective" (Stephen Bertman, Hyperculture: Westport, CT, 1998, page 24). We see that all around us.

Those of us who stand in the great tradition of catholic and historic Christianity stand on the shoulders of our past, drawing from its lessons and its spiritual perspective, but that is not so with all Christians. As a historic Christian I believe that the manner in which we should read and understand Scripture is within the continuum of interpretation that began at the very beginning, but others hold a different perception of both the place of Scripture in our faith, and the way that we use words to understand it.

Finding, as I do, the deconstructionist mentality (which is the extreme end of the alternative, but highly influential) both shallow and trivial, a narcissistic outworking of the self-centered radical individualism of 21st Century western society, I am clearly at odds with those who constantly repeat the mantra that there are other ways to understand the biblical text. As I have said before, I have reached a point of exasperation with those who say, "Well, that's your way of interpreting the Bible," but who then do not come up with a disciplined interpretation of their own, and neither do they have a theologically and hermeneutically consistent alternative to offer.

It is my belief that having backed away from a disciplined scholarship of the text, those seeking to revise what we understand to be the Christian faith and its ethical implications, have totally failed to present a viable, solid, and consistent alternative. When in discussion with them there is a game of bait and switch going on, in which they change the subject when they find themselves being cornered by the fluidity of their own hermeneutical presuppositions.

Last week I heard on the radio a revisionist in the field of sexuality presenting as proven facts notions that have no scientific evidence to back them up. On Saturday I heard it said by an intelligent person that you can be "orthodox" and believe almost whatever you like -- thus evacuating the word orthodox of its fundamental meaning. It would appear that there is a "campaign" within our culture to fly in the face of facts and language in order to assert something that is up for debate as being totally true and, therefore, beyond debate and should be applied within our world.

This is all helped in the church by the fact that those are orthodox avoid entering the discussion, or merely offer soundbites from the sidelines, while leaving questionable notions intellectually unchallenged. Some years ago I was in California with the rector of a wealthy liberal congregation, and I suggested that one of the things we needed was a gathering at which the various hermeneutics that have arisen to challenge traditional hermeneutics, could meet together with those of us who hold one of a variety of historical hermeneutics and test our ideas against one another. I makes this suggestion again, this time in a wider forum -- we need such a setting.

I am not a scholar, but I am perfectly happy to test my reading of the text, following in the footsteps of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Karl Barth, and scores of active scholars, in a forum where more contemporary understandings of the text share the floor. I believe that such a gathering is vital, because those who claim orthodoxy need to check their interpretative presuppositions against those they perceive to have erred, as much as the innovationists need to be able to make a solid and consistent attempt to make a case for their own approach toward interpretation.

I am not necessarily saying that such a gathering would change a lot of minds, but it would reveal the weaknesses and inconsistencies of every side of this vital argument that is taking place. If something like this was funded and sponsored by a cross-section, say, Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and Regent College, Vancouver, and Episcopal Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary, New York, then perhaps there would be a good chance for outcomes to be taken seriously.

This issue of hermeneutic needs to be engaged rather than continuing to be a weapon we use against each other.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Remembering Jesse Cole

The phone rang on Friday morning a little after 6.30 as I was sitting down at my desk to begin a day's work. I knew something was wrong when the name displayed on the caller ID did not match the voice I heard, telling me that Jesse Cole, our senior warden at the Church of the Apostles, had died not long before. I was stunned. It was true that Jesse was undergoing treatment for cancer, but he had been making such tremendous progress that all of us were cautiously optimistic he would make as full a recovery as possible.

Jesse was a senior citizen, it is true, but this was one strong man who had hardly missed a day's work since he was sixteen, and until January had been at his business at 5.15 in the morning. It seems there were complications overnight and that he had finally succumbed to the "cure." In disbelief, Rosemary and I quickly drove over to the home.

The day became a blur. Appointments cancelled, hours spent with parishioners telling them what had happened and pastoring them, and then the business of nudging the family to make the necessary arrangements for the funeral. All this was made more difficult by the fact that one of the family was in Japan visiting a son and daughter-in-law.

Today I helped chair one of the listening forums in the process toward electing a new bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. My heart, however, was intensely involved with the earthy business of death and dying, and the whole process left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Our numbers were small, but there were those present who were determined to make sure that their view was heard, and while some good things were probably achieved, it was clear that far too many of our contemporaries, us included, are so bound up in their own narcissistic "stuff" that they are detached from the fundamentals of the human condition and even the grace-filled message of the Gospel.

So on getting home I changed into some old clothes and disappeared into my yard to use the glorious sunshine of an early spring afternoon to prepare my hillside which in a few weeks will be alive with countless wildflowers and the first shootings of a variety of prairie grasses. It was good to smell the earth, to get my hands dirty, and to be able to stop and watch the hawks wheeling overhead in the blustering thermals. While I was getting to hillside prepared, Rosemary was on her hands and knees burying the first batch of seed potatoes.

The greatest instincts of life are our urge to cultivate the soil, and the reality check that it always is to come face to face with the spectre of death. Adam was a gardener, I kept telling myself as I worked my land, and it is to the earth that I was now tending that the earth of my body would eventually return -- dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Was not this much more in tune with the Gospel message than the cacophony of the morning?

I am not looking forward to the next few days. We will probably have a larger than normal congregation tomorrow, but the delight will be tempered because the focus of our service will be our grief (yet thanksgiving) over our brother, Jesse. In the days that follow there will be preparations for the funeral, visitations, the darling (yet draining) business of being with those who are grieving down to the very depths of their being. This is something I have done a hundred times before, but it can never become routine.

Yet this is what the pastoral ministry is about, not the jockeying for position that took place in that stuffy parish hall today, nor the shenanigans of the House of Bishops now meeting in Texas. Meanwhile, I know that I am going to miss my fellow-laborer in this corner of God's vineyard, but he has already been received into the everlasting arms, and on Sunday's when we gather we will remind ourselves that he is with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. This is much closer to what the church is all about.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Do we take error seriously enough?

One of my mentors when I was still in my twenties was Canon Max Warren, one of the great leaders of the Church Mission Society. At that time Canon Warren's son-in-law, since deceased, was serving in India. He spent a lot of time hanging round an ashram near a university dialoguing with intellectual leaders of Hinduism, attempting to get into the Hindu mind in order that the Gospel of Jesus Christ might be brought meaningfully into this situation.

As a young man with clear and ferocious ideas I was respectful of this man's ministry, but a little dubious of its value. Now, more than thirty years later and with a few more miles behind me, I understand better what he was up to, because I have discovered that it is impossible to counter what one perceives to be error if you have no respect for the positions that you oppose. You aren't just trying to grasp what your opponent's position is just to make debating points, but in order to fully understand its strengths and weaknesses so that it can be measured against and tested by what one believes to be true.

There is always a risk associated with such an exercise, because a measure of openness suggests that you are putting yourself in a position where your own mind could possibly be changed, too. However, if we are followers of the One who is the Truth (John 14:6), then we should be men and women who are prepared to seek the truth across the whole array of learning, insight, discovery, and even mis-information! It also means that we should be prepared to allow the breadth of learning and human experience to sift our own perceptions, seeking to uncover what is less than true in them and then correct the situation.

However, wherever I look today there is a flabby and flaccid understand of what truth is. We live in a culture which irrationally states that all of us has a truth, even though those "truths" might be mutually exclusive of one another. This is sheer intellectual and spiritual chaos, and in ECUSA we live with the consequences of this bizarre, irrational, non-rational and unreflective mindset. Much of what passes for theology in the side lined denominations is deeply infected by the prevailing relativism of our age, as well as a less than robust capacity either to engage in debate or listen to views that challenge its underlying viewpoints.

On the other hand, there is the same reticence to engage with positions with they are at odds by many on the conservative/traditionalist side of the divide. Consrvatives tend to KNOW that they are right, and then they loudly shout their position at those with whom they disagree, without waiting for or listening to an answer. They also have the infuriating habit of boiling everything down to a soundbite or a bumper-sticker sized statement.

There is another infuriating element in the conservative mindset, too, and that is that they have a tendency to walk away from conflict and disagreement too readily. One of the things that puzzled me most when I came to the USA was the array of Christian ghettos that exist, and the timidity of American conservative Christians to engage the culture in which they live. I had grown up as a Christian believing that it was good for me to cut my intellectual teeth in a secular university and a liberal theology department.

There were no such things where I came from as Christian schools, Christian colleges, Christian Yellow Pages, but there were Christian mentors who were there to walk with us as we worked our way through the secular and "liberal" institutions where we received our education. Jesus was our example as one who engaged the world around him rather than ran away from it and circled the wagons, however uncomfortable it might be at times to function in such circumstances of competing theologies and ideologies.

I would accept that there are times and situations when it might be wisest to withdraw from engagement either for a season or permanently, but I see far too many conservatives walking before they have engaged, merely shouting their slogans over their shoulders as they depart. I suspect this reflects either an unwillingness to respect those with whom they disagree, an inability to disagree and enter debate, or a mixture of both (and more).

This immeasurably weakens their position and leads to an ever tighter circling of the wagons. I suspect that it reflects an incapacity to enter into spirited dialogue because of intellectual impoverishment. The result is that conservative convictions, especially in the realm of faith, are not tested on the ground and in the real world. As a result old saws get trotted out which have not been thought through, and very possibly they are not be true!

Recently I spent the evening with a young couple who had worshiped with us on several occasions, and were burned out from a large exuberant conservative church in this area. They didn't wish to cease being Christians, but they did want to affirm a faith that made logical and rational sense in the confusing world in which we live. Yet they had had modelled to them a way of believing that put the mind and rational process on the shelf. I would hazard there are many reflective younger people like this but conservative Christianity has not modelled this very well to them.

Contemporary conservative Christians are, quite honestly, in the same boat as "liberal" Christians in that there is truth-decay in our society, and they are witting or unwitting participants in it. John Seel and Os Guiness wrote some years ago, "Truth and theology are the royal road to knowing God. No one can love God and not be a theologian. No one can follow Christ and not be committed to taking truth seriously" ( No God But God page 19). Yet if truth were being taken seriously by both conservatives and liberals, either side would be engaging the other in significant debate, rather than the turning of their backs on one another that has taken place.

If we are understand the cycles of life in the church, then it is at times of ferocious disagreement and rampant error that the rich nature of the catholic faith is hammered out. It was the heresies of Montanus that convinced the church of its need to create a closed canon of Scripture, for example, and the Sixteenth Century was a period when all sorts of accretions needed to be peeled away from both the Catholic Church and the emerging churches of the Reformation. Also, we must expect debate and disagreement to go on in timespans measured by generations rather than months.

I would posit that today is another such period in the cycle of learnign the truth, when intellectual and moral chaos within the context of the decay of modernity into postmodernity, then into something else, is forcing us to examine what is given and true, and that does not come without debate, dialogue, disagreement, and gnawing deeply on difficult ideas, concepts, and realities. Today's church, whatever label you pin on it, has been intellectually, ethically, and spiritually subverted, and very few seem prepared to do the hard work necessary to redirecting it.

In the midst of all that is going on I am increasingly desperate to know the truth, and I see only flickers of it on either side of the canyon that has divided us. I don't see these flickers of truth cutting themselves against one another and lighting a fire that will warm me and lighten my way through the darkness. I see the impotency of war -- a war that is every bit as nasty in the spiritual and intellectual realm as the entrenched armies that snaked their way from the North Sea to the Alps from 1914-1918. Millions were lost in a quagmire. That is our state today.

I suspect there are some who have read this and are now shaking their heads that Kew is "going off" or has "lost the plot." I hope not, I hope that I am merely a man who is passionate to be true to the One who is the source of truth, and whose trueness begins with us at the foot of the Cross and our minds shaped by the richness of the Word.

Folks, Christians, what is God trying to teach us about taking error seriously?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Quotable Quotes

Here are a handful of quotable quotes that might interest you.

The first is about postmodernity and was garnered from Martin Marty's CONTEXT, where he is quoting A. J. Conyers, who teaches at Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

"Postmodernism is not a culture, but the fatigue of culture. It is a sign of the end of modernity, and for that reason its critique of modernity is telling. But it is not a new age, nor the sign of a new kind of culture. It despairs of culture. It cannot become a vessel for gospel, for it is fundamentally anti-gospel just as all signs of destruction (or deconstruction) and judgment can only serve as a sort of warning, an invocation of an 'Ichabod'. For culture both engenders and depends on life, not decay, and it is there -- not in the decadent features of a modern West, but perhaps in the revivals of Asia and Africa -- that we shall truly find the gospel at work. And it is there that a full and a viable sense of 'vocation' will first be found in a vital and life-giving form."

The second is from my old friend, Jim Packer, and is taken from a review
that he did in the March/April 2005 issue of Books and Culture. The
book is about the relationship between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals

"Catholics, whose church is fairly well discipline, do not take this process of adjustment to the brash extremes of Protestants like John Spong, Richard Holloway, Michael Ingham and John Hick, whose imaginative end-products are not Christianty but something else; however, liberal Catholics seem to be on the same path methodologically, though nothing like so far along it.

To all conservative Christians, liberals, however well-meaning, appear as parasitic cosmeticians; cosmeticians, because they constantly aim to remove from Christianity that which outsiders, like some inside, find intellectually unsightly and unacceptable; parasitic, because they attach themselves to the historic faith and feed off it even as they whittle it down, diminishing, distorting, and displacing major features of it to fit in with what their skeptical conversation partners tout as factual truth. In mainline Protestantism, where doctrinal disciplines is, alas, virtually nonexistent, liberals have a free run, but in Catholicsm only a few steps along this road prove to be too far."

A little later in the article he writes,

The true corrective for all liberalism, so conservatives think, is a renewed commitment to the teaching of the Bible: a Bible viewed in its totality as Jesus and his apostles viewed their canonical Scriptures, our Old Testament (without the Apocrypha, it seems); namely, as the didactive discourse, utterance, communicative instrument of God in person; as, therefore, truth unchanged, unchanging and transcultural, by which all human options in all cultures are to be measured and assessed, rather than vice-versa... Humanly and pastorally, that issue then
mutates into whether our minds will focus primarily on receptive interaction with the culture or with the Bible.

MOst people see clearly only that on which they focus their eyes and concentrate their minds, and in theology things are similar. Liberal minds, focused on the prevailing culture with its pressures and problems, are often blurred with regard to the truth and authority of the Scriptures, through not having focused habitually on the word of God in, as, and through the biblical text. A basic task for conservatives in both camps (Catholic and evangelical) is to call attention to this
blurriness and, under God, seek to dispel it."

Hope you find these helpful.