[Church] Family Principles #2: Only Be Scared When I’m Scared

Compass.Every family has them. Little rules, proverbs, or general orders that govern everyday life. The Svigel family has several. Hang out with us for a day and you’ll hear at least two or three of them spoken by me, my wife, or sometimes even my kids. I can’t always rest these rules on profound biblical, theological, or philosophical foundations. Instead, we derived them from experience, common sense, and sometimes tradition.

As I’ve thought about the small collection of proverbs or principles that have developed over the last decade or so of parenting, I realize that the good advice that works in the Svigel household can also apply to the household of God. So, in this ten-part series, I’m going to briefly work through ten Svigel family rules, describe how they function to keep my own family healthy and safe, and then discuss how a local church family might benefit from their practical benefits. 

Family Principle #2: Only be scared when I’m scared.

A couple years ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom that have become a standing rule in the Svigel family: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

The non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity, cultural crises, and doctrinal controversies: only be scared when I’m scared.

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But think about it. When we behave as if every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to the family of faith that the Church is in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, in essence, only be scared when I’m scared. Yes, there are times we need to sound the alarm, to retreat, to take cover, to be defensive, or to go on the attack. But we should always measure our reactions responsibly. Most of the time a calm, quiet, and fearless answer will teach those in our spiritual care not only what to respond, but how.

Sufficiency of the Five Senses: An Epistemological Problem for Non-Theistic Evolution?

If you had access to the external world only through the sense of smell, how would you perceive reality? Your entire universe would be nothing but a series of weak and strong odors; some pleasant, others putrid. If you encountered other beings in the universe, you would distinguish them only by their unique scents—if, that is, they had any discernible scent at all. A person with only the sense of smell may not have enough data to establish his or her own spatial or perhaps even temporal location; certainly they would have no concept of corporeality. In short, the sense of smell alone is insufficient for a being to construct a complete, accurate, or functional picture of the external world—or even one that is at least sufficiently close to complete, accurate, or functional.

Now what if a person only had the sense of hearing? The situation for such a person would only be slightly better than for the person granted the sense of smell alone. Instead of a series of odors, the hearing being would experience a string of loud and soft sounds, some pleasant to the ear, others harsh. Communication might be possible only if he or she could get control of the tongue and vocal chords without the sense of touch, and thus respond to sounds from others with his or her own sounds. Certainly, the hearing person would still have an incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly functional experience of the external universe.

The same thing can be said about all of the five senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing. If any of these senses is missing, a person’s perception of the world would change. He or she may be able to function and communicate in the world, but the subjective experience of the external world would differ drastically from a person with all five senses.

Now, if I were a person with only the sense of hearing and I encountered another being who told me about his own sense of seeing, which I lacked, I would have no category within which to understand a concept like “sight.” Nor would I be able to understand ideas like bright, dark, red, or blue. A seeing being would have no way of explaining what my missing sensations were like, nor would I be able to imagine the kind of world such a person experiences. Though I could be made intellectually aware that I am deficient, I would have no way of knowing what that actually meant. Not really. I would, in fact, continue in my current state of perception as I always have.

If a person with, say, only three senses—the senses of touch, smell, and taste—endured for a lifetime without any knowledge that there were other senses available, that person would have no reason to think there were such things as sight and sound. A person with only these three senses may believe that three and only three senses are sufficient to grant him or her complete, accurate, and functional access to the external world. Such a person would, of course, be wrong, but left alone he or she would be unaware of the error.

Granted, modern humans have used technology to expand their ability to acquire data about the universe. Though hidden to our sight, we can detect infrared and ultraviolet light, radio waves, and radiation. We can examine tiny organisms as well as remote bodies through the use of microscopes and telescopes. But all of these forms of technology work within the existing five senses—enhancing and improving, not supplementing or adding to, the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. These means of measuring otherwise invisible or inaudible things in our world have, indeed, altered the perception of reality for modern humans, but these means themselves depend entirely on our five senses. In a similar vein, theoretical physicists can hypothesize about the existence of numerous dimensions beyond those of our limited perspective, but in that case they have no way of imagining or experiencing such theoretical dimensions. They are aware of such possible dimensions through mathematical calculations and “picture” them through analogies and illustrations bound by experiences of their five senses. It is, in short, impossible to conceptually break from the constraints of the five scent perception of the external world.

This brings me to my point.

How can humans have any confidence that additional senses beyond our five would not radically alter our perception and experience of reality? If three senses are better than two, and four better than three, and five better than four, why wouldn’t six, seven, or eight be better than five? We cannot simply respond to such a question by saying, “I can’t imagine what those additional senses would be,” because a person who has only one could not imagine a second, and person with only two could not imagine a third.

So the question remains.

Could there be additional senses, which, if we had them, would radically alter the way we perceive and experience the external world? Would the hypothetical extra senses grant us access to a world similar to ours but more complete, fuller, deeper? As rational beings, we must acknowledge this possibility. But what about its probability?

This is where things get quite messy. Is it probable that we human beings have evolved the precise number of senses to completely and accurately perceive the world around us? Or is it probable that our sensory organs provide us with enough data to at least approximate reality? We know of small, primitive beings that do not possess the five senses we have, and people typically place such life forms into a category of less-evolved beings. But on what basis do we conclude that natural selection would develop five senses with a quality to provide an accurate perception of reality when their data are synthesized by the mind into a coherent whole?

The answer? From a purely naturalistic perspective, humans have no reasonable basis to have confidence that our five senses are sufficient. In fact, it seems more probable that naturalistic evolutionary processes would take the easiest route, as survival of the individual and propagation of the species—not epistemological accuracy—is the result of unguided evolution. Of course, we rational beings would naturally hope that our five senses were not merely all that was necessary for survival (functional sufficiency), but that they were adequate for providing a complete or nearly-complete experience of the external world (epistemological accuracy). While our five senses may provide a functional experience of reality sufficient for the purpose of survival, within a naturalistic view of evolution, our five senses cannot be trusted to provide an accurate (i.e., dependable) experience of reality.

However, I can posit an alternative understanding of the sufficiency of our five senses to provide an accurate or near-accurate experience of the external world. But for such a presupposition to be accepted, one must believe that human beings were designed for the purpose of accurately perceiving the external world, not merely evolved toward the function of survival and propagaion. If humans were designed to live in this particular universe, it is possible to believe that the designer equipped humans with no more and no less senses than are necessary to accurately perceive the external world. And depending on the character of that designer (good, powerful, truthful), one might conclude that such a presupposition about the ability of human beings to accurately experience the external world through their five senses is probable. Of course, a theist must acknowledge that there may be things in the world that go beyond what the designer intended for its creatures to perceive, but in any case the five senses would be sufficient to provide an accurate or nearly-accurate experience of the external world.

This brings me to my closing point. Any human being who believes that he or she possesses enough senses to draw confident conclusions about the external world on a daily basis is inherently drawing on the presupposition of intelligent design (whether evolutionary or non-evolutionary), not of naturalistic evolution. The former presupposition makes the sufficiency of the five senses a probable hypothesis; the latter presupposition does not. Apart from the hypothesis of an intelligent designer who equipped humans with the appropriate number and variety of sensory organs, the question of the sufficiency of the five senses for accurately experiencing the external world becomes, in my mind, an insurmountable problem. An atheist who appeals to evolution necessarily can have no epistemological confidence in his or her ability to adequately gather and to accurately analyze data about the world as it really is. The empirical sciences that form the foundation of their worldview seem to require a presupposition about the nature of sense perception that argues against their methods and conclusions. Only by appealing to an intelligent designer who equipped humans with sufficient senses for accurately experiencing the external world can a person reasonably engage in the empirical sciences.

[NOTE: Originally posts on July 9, 2008, at www.retrochristianity.com. For a more technical treatment of a similar argument as mine, see Alvin Plantinga, “Is Naturalism Irrational?” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 72-96. I readily admit that my own popular expression of this argument differs from Plantinga’s in its expression, scope, and quality.]

The Early Church: Christianity or Christianities?

Apostles SquareDId Christianity begin as a tangle of squabbling followers putting their own spins on Jesus’s life and teachings? Did many Christianities with different “Jesuses” strive for dominance? Did one form of Christianity achieve victory, only to squash its opponents and rewrite its own history?

Dr. Darrell Bock and I recently discussed this theme in a Dallas Seminary Cultural Engagement Chapel. In this brief presentation we barely scratch the surface of this topic. You can watch the dialogue here.

[My basic introductory booklet I mention in the video on this topic is entitled Heroes and Heretics: Solving the Modern Mystery of the Ancient Church, and it’s available here. For those few of you interested in a detailed discussion of historiographical presuppositions involved in the debate, check out my essay, “‘You got to know when to hold ’em’: Trumping the Bauer Thesis.“]

 

The PowerPoint Slides in the video are available here: Christianity or Christianities PowerPoint Slides

This and many other important topics will be discussed at The Table conference, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently,” to be held on April 19-20 at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship.

Early Registration Open for The Table Conference April 19-20, 2013

On April 19–20, 2013, I will have the privilege of serving as one of six presenters when The TableDallas Seminary launches The Table conference series. The theme of the conference will be “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” Three major questions will each be addressed by two experts in the respective fields, one from Dallas Seminary and another guest invited to The Table: “Which Jesus?” with Lee Strobel and Darrel Bock . . . “Which Bible?” with Dan Wallace and Craig Blomberg . . . and “Which Christianity?” with Michael Svigel and Charles Hill.

My topic relates directly to my area of Ph.D. dissertation work: the question of original Christian identity. My presentation will revolve around what it meant to be “Christian” in the minds of the earliest Christian communities. Were they a motley crew of squabbling factions held together only by a common name? Or was there something solid, unchangeable, and identifiable that held them together in a common identity despite a diversity of teachers, texts, and traditions? How does our answer to this question affect how we view the boundaries and limits of Christian identity today?

Registration is now open. Consider attending this conference with your pastoral or leadership staff, elders, or anybody interested in learning how to interact with these vital issues in an informed way. It would also be a great conference for skeptics, doubters, or those young believers with a lot of honest questions about the Christian faith. You can find information on the conference at http://www.dts.edu/conferences/presentinggod/.

The conference will be held at Bent Tree Bible Church in Carrollton, Texas. I hope to see you there!

 

 

“Silence of the Bishop”: A Calm, Cautious, and Controlled Response to Critics of Christianity

Not long ago my family and I were strolling along a crowded street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we approached a group of very strange-looking Goths, my kids began to show signs of fear. My five-year-old instantly gripped my hand more tightly. My ten-year-old son drew close to me and started whispering about his worries. My twelve-year-old daughter grabbed my wife’s arm. By the looks on their faces, my kids thought we were in imminent peril.

In reality, there was no danger. We were entirely safe. My kids were just experiencing the effects of classic xenophobia. But they were just kids. And kids get scared of all kinds of things.

When we reached a quieter corner, I took my children aside and imparted some words of wisdom: “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

That non-event in Chinatown that caused my children such stress illustrates an important principle that applies not only to the family, but also to the family of God. In families, parents have experience and perspective kids can’t possibly have. They’re able to size up situations more quickly and thoroughly than children. That’s why parents need to set the tone for an appropriate response to merely perceived (as well as real) dangers.

The same is true for leaders in the Christian community in their responses to critics of Christianity.

 

Typical Responses to Critics of Christianity

In our era of new media—blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook—critics can quickly and easily make unsubstantiated or less-than-substantiated claims against the Bible or Jesus or the history of the faith. And many—both unbelievers and believers—take these claims seriously. When a perceived threat to the faith hits the public square . . . when another credentialed critic slams Jesus . . . or when some new scientific or historical discovery challenges the Bible, the pastors and teachers of the church often tune their responses to the same frequency as those critics who sounded the exaggerated alarm. Yet the Christian’s answers are often just as hasty (and just as irresponsible) as those of their non-Christian opponents. Too frequently they treat a cat’s hiss like a lion’s roar then respond with a tranquilizer gun that could take down a brontosaurus.

But what choice do Christian leaders have? How else should we respond to news that rattles the cage of a skittish Christian community?

The common approach today is to respond instantly to every criticism: Be ready to have an answer for every challenge. If somebody emails us for a quote, we need to be prepared to say something. If the news asks us for an interview, we must take that opportunity to set the record straight. If the cameras show up for a comment, we should have our makeup in hand. Why? Because Christians need to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2), “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:25). This is the apologetic approach of the modern media age. At one level the reasoning makes sense: if we don’t answer, people will think we don’t have an answer—not only our critics, but also those believers whose spiritual safety is our responsibility.

Now, I have no intention of criticizing this approach in its entirety. This kind of readiness and willingness to take opportunities to respond to critics has been part of the Christian faith for centuries. And Christian leaders ought to take advantage of opportunities to clear the air of controversy and calm the hearts of those with fragile faith. Yet my contention is that this is not the only Christian method of responding to critics . . . nor is it always the wisest.

In this essay, I want to suggest a different approach—less popular today, but no less Christian.

 

The Silence of the Bishop

Around the year A.D. 110, while under arrest and on his way to Rome to be fed to the lions, Ignatius of Antioch wrote a handful of letters to several churches in Asia Minor warning them of false teachers and urging them to faithfully contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Apparently, though, the bishops of Ephesus and Philadelphia were not known for a strategy of vocal debate with false teachers and critics. In fact, it seems that some in their churches were even disappointed by their bishops’ strategy of keeping silent instead of debating their critics in the public square.

Rather than chastising those pastors for failing to arm themselves for disputation and to meet their opponents at high noon for a public shoot-out, Ignatius actually praised their refusal to engage in doctrinal battle royal. To the church in Ephesus he wrote: “The more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him” (Ign. Eph. 6.1). Similarly, concerning the bishop of the Philadelphian church, Ignatius wrote, “I am impressed by his forbearance; he accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).

Scholars have gone back and forth on exactly what Ignatius meant by praising the silence of the bishop. However, by placing Ignatius’s commendations in their Hellenistic rhetorical context, Harry O. Maier concludes, “Ignatius’ praise of silent bishops is not an attempt to defend ineloquence, nor is it intended to urge circumspection in theological debate; still less is it evidence in the first instance of the cosmological theorizing of a speculative theologian. Rather, it represents an idiosyncratic treatment of a commonplace in ancient rhetorical art concerning the discipline of well-timed and temperate speech that accomplishes important tasks of promoting social harmony and civil good order” (Harry O. Maier, “The Politics of the Silent Bishop: Silence and Persuasion in Ignatius of Antioch,” Journal of Theological Studies, NS, 55.2 [2004]: 506). For Ignatius of Antioch, the silence of the bishop meant “the opposite of intemperate speech and as such connotes the well-deployed rhetorical ability of the virtuous who have trained themselves to use the right word at the right time to achieve the common good” (Maier, “Silent Bishop,” 506).

Ignatius and the wise bishops of Asia Minor avoided mimicking the empty chatter of their foolish detractors. The heretical false teachers were talkative, impulsive, loquacious babblers. In response, the wise Christian leader should be cool, temperate, self-controlled, thoughtful, moderate, and well-reasoned, keeping silent in the face of opponents’ ceaseless prattling . . . but speaking calmly, cautiously, and controlled at the proper time and in the proper tone (cf. Maier, “Silent Bishops,” 507–509).

 

Answering a Fool according to His Folly

In today’s culture of information overload, public debate, blog posts, podcasts, talking points, sound bites, tweets, and re-tweets, the ancient Christian virtue of remaining silent in the face of hurricanic hullabaloo seems more like a vice. Instead, when a scholar touts some new discovery as a challenge to the faith, many Christian leaders feel compelled to respond immediately . . . as if the discovery actually constituted a legitimate and dangerous challenge to the faith. But is this the wisest approach? Is meeting the unfounded alarm with equal panic a healthy path toward engaging the shrill detractors and critics in a hostile culture?

The book of Proverbs states two apparently contradictory perspectives on engaging the fool’s folly. The first: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Prov. 26:4). In other words, when we respond to fools in a way that stoops to their methods, reasoning, manner, and tone, we will appear to be just as foolish as the fool himself. Yet the very next line shines light from a different angle: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (26:5). Without lowering ourselves to the manner of a fool (26:4), wisdom often demands that we respond appropriately when such a response will likely lead to the successful censure of the wiseacre. These verses need to be understood in light of their intended results: when answering a fool will result in folly, we should remain silent (26:4). But when answering a fool appropriately will lead to a correction of the fool’s self-estimation, we should instruct him (26:5).

This kind of calm, cautious, and controlled response seems to be in view in Peter’s classic “apologetics” passage, where that apostle writes, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). This passage implies that the person is making a genuine inquiry concerning the devoted believer’s Christian hope; he’s not an arrogant scoffer engaged in a public smear campaign. The manner of response should be with the virtues of “gentleness and respect.” Similarly, Paul instructed Timothy to “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Rather than shying away from genuine teaching opportunities, the faithful pastor or teacher should patiently engage in instruction.

This virtuous approach to engagement in the public square requires that we speak when it’s appropriate to speak . . . and that we be silent when we should be silent. It means we refuse to match the shrill tone of excitable detractors. We evade escalating polemics. We avoid being dragged into flash-in-the-pan controversies that will burn themselves out. It means that we know when to open our mouths and gently but firmly answer the fool who thinks he’s wise in his own eyes . . . and when to shake the dust off our feet, refuse to give holy things to the dogs, and avoid casting pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6; 10:14).

When we look to the Lord Jesus for examples of responding to questioners and critics, we find that Christ displayed unpredictable and varied approaches, too. If He perceived that the challenges were inspired by wicked or disingenuous motives, He would simply refuse to answer them (Matt. 21:24; John 8:3–9). When the disciples asked an honest (though confused) question about His second coming and the destruction of Jerusalem, He not only answered their own question, but He also addressed bigger issues that should have concerned them (Matt. 24:1–51). Sometimes Jesus answered simple, honest questions with simple, straightforward responses (Mark 12:29–31; John 4:19–24). At other times He simply remained silent (Matt. 26:63; John 18:9). Overall, Jesus exemplified the kind of calm, cautious, and controlled engagement with questioners and critics we might expect from the One Who is Wisdom incarnate.

 

Accomplishing More . . . through Silence?

After that brief encounter with a group of Goths in Chinatown, I told my children, “If we’re ever in a situation where you think we might be in danger, I want you to look at me. If I’m calm, then you can relax. But if I’m scared, then you can be scared, too.”

In our age of religious, social, political, and cultural attacks on the Christian faith, Christian leaders can’t afford to get seduced into responding to constant potshots. As Ignatius of Antioch taught us, there’s something virtuous about the calm, collected, “silence of the bishop” in the midst of a barrage of enemy fire. There’s something to be said about a Christian leader’s cool approach to critics’ outrageous claims and scholars irresponsible assertions—an approach that rises above the fray, shrugs off the flack, and communicates to younger believers that ultimately no weapon formed against us will prosper (Isa. 54:17).

However, when we leaders behave like every volley in the so-called “culture war” needs to be met with an immediate and decisive retaliation, we may be inadvertently communicating to our people that we’re in constant danger of imminent decimation. Rank and file Christians might begin to believe that if we don’t have an instant answer to every foolish attack on the ancient faith, then the faith itself will be in danger of losing.

Of course, there will always be a contingent of Christian apologists and scholars out there engaged in a failed modernist exercise of “understanding seeking faith.” Deep down they hide their belief that some terrible misunderstanding, unanticipated piece of damning evidence, or cleverly articulated argument could potentially topple the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

However, in a classic Christian approach of “faith seeking understanding,” whether criticisms come in drizzles or downpours, trickles or typhoons, we will not be shaken (Ps. 62:2). To some our unwillingness to answer the fool according to his folly will look like an inability to put the scoffer in his place. But I believe the calm, cautious, and controlled Christian leader is a much greater boon to the Body of Christ than the half-cocked “hero” who is always itching to jump into the fray. I agree with the words of Ignatius of Antioch, that often the silent bishop “accomplishes more through silence than others do by talking” (Ign. Phld. 1.1).