Tag Archives: truth

How Do We Think? (A Book Review)

We’re always being told what to think, but not how to think- enter Alan Jacobs.

how to think coverPolarization is the mark of our current social, political, and religious environments. I don’t know if there’s another time where so many people are on opposite extremes of so many different issues- from healthcare, to gun control, to climate change, to foreign policy, and many more. It is into this extreme environment that Alan Jacobs speaks a word of calmness, clarity and, yes, even grace through his newest book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

Jacob’s book is, both, timely and important because he does what the title of the book says- he advises the reader on how to think, not what to think. Through a book that is both well researched, and in a style that is deep and engaging, Jacobs invites the reader to examine the influences and prejudices inherent in our thinking.

My main takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, is the realization that we believe that the things we think, and the positions we take are true, or else we would not be holding those ideas. And because we believe them to be true, we naturally listen to others who confirm what we hold to be true. Even if we are truly not sure what we think about an issue, we will gravitate toward others who are unsure and hold those with a defined position as suspicious. What Jacobs rightly notes is that when we are faced with another idea, although we may find that idea repulsive, instead of labeling only the idea repulsive, we label the one who holds the idea as repulsive- or what Jacobs borrows from Susan Harding and calls the “repugnant cultural other.” Jacobs’ main goal in the book is to show that the “RCO” is indeed a human being and realize that we might, under different circumstances, hold the same view that we find repulsive.

Second, there is a deceptive argument that promotes eliminating emotions, both positive and negative, collectively called biases and, instead, use pure reason. Jacobs notes, however, that reason alone is an “insufficient guide” because our biases actually help us navigate through life because without them “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us” (86). Feelings and biases actually help us make quick decisions when we cannot stop and rationally assess every situation or decision on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. He warns, however, that we want our biases to be the right biases and that begins by “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst” (87).

These are my top two takeaways but there are many other things that I could note that are interesting. Overall Jacobs writes a fascinating book and it may be one that I routinely give away to graduating seniors and college students. My most telling endorsement is that when I finished the book, I was glad I read it.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

Christians can’t add to the “believe me” culture

unknown-1By now we all know the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Whether you’re on the right or left, Republican or Democrat, American or a citizen of another country, Christian or another religion or no religion, there must be concern about the increasingly subjective nature of truth. When facts, evidence, logic, and cause and effect are set aside and replaced with “believe me,” we must be skeptical of the one who is asking for our blind trust. We wouldn’t get on a bicycle outfitted with wings and just believe if someone told us that it could fly. Facts, evidence, logic and cause and effect tell us that a bicycle, although outfitted with wings, cannot fly, no matter how much someone tells us to believe that it can.

I could be talking only about politics but the same is true in our churches. Our churches cannot be places where facts, evidence, logic and cause and effect are set aside for a “believe me” stance. In a world of fake news and alternative facts, we cannot proclaim biblical truth, gospel truth, as a “just believe me” kind of truth. We have to value our integrity and the integrity of the message we proclaim better than that.

A 2013 study by Gallop showed that trust that American have in their pastors, ministers and clergy has plummeted in recent years. In the study only 47% of Americans gave clergy a “very high” or “high” rating on honesty and ethics;  that number has dropped from 67% in 1985. That number was even lower for those ages 18-34, with only 34% rating clergy “very high” or “high” in honesty and ethics. In an already skeptical generation, 7 out of 10 do not see pastors and ministers as honest or ethical. We have much work to do here.  There have been enough politicians who have lied, corporate CEOs who have stolen and pastors who have fallen to make the most trusting person cynical and skeptical. As Christians, not just clergy, we have to commit to living honest and ethical lives. This isn’t following moral rules for morality’s sake but so that in a world that appears unreliable, we must stand out as reliable, truthful and trust worthy.

As I am now preparing sermons each week, I am more aware than ever of the need to be deliberate in showing that, while the message of Jesus takes faith, it is not a faith devoid from facts, evidence and logic. It is a far different thing to show that the message of Jesus is true rather than just saying that the message of Jesus is true. I may not get it right all the time, but I hope that I am at least aware and thinking about it. Showing the message of Jesus to be true begins with a life lived true to the message of Jesus from the inside- out, showing how it connects to every area of life, how the truths of scripture match our observations of reality and not just saying  “believe me.”

(And here I’ll quote my sources in order to be honest and ethical: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/december/seven-people-americans-trust-more-pastor-gallup-honesty.html, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/18/trust-in-clergy-gallup-poll_n_4468205.html)

Sight of Surrender

There are several phrases we use when we talk about surrender. We can say that someone threw in the towel. Or a team is waving the white flag.

Beyond those phrases, though, there are actions we take to show surrender. In a boxing match, the trainer will literally throw a towel into the ring to show that his fighter cannot continue. Soldiers will hold up or wave a white flag. A criminal will hold their hands up in the air to show that they surrender to the police. Even in chess, a player can surrender by laying down their king.

Surrender is one of the words that is heard regularly in sermons and in churches, but what do we mean when we say it? And what does it look like?

Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t use the term surrender in the same way we typically hear it used in sermons, Bible studies or books. When we hear the term used in the “churchy” way, it’s a summery of several biblical teachings. It summarizes Jesus’ teachings about not worrying about tomorrow, about taking up one’s cross and about praying for God’s will to be done- even above our own will. It summarizes Paul’s exhortations to live is Christ and that Christ’s grace and strength come in weakness. It’s summarized John’s call to lay down our lives for each other. When we say surrender, this is what we are saying,

But saying that we surrender and surrendering are different things. As we already saw, surrender is accompanied by an action. An army that says they surrender yet continues to fight, really hasn’t surrendered. Surrender has to come with an action others can see, the sight of the surrender. What, then, is the sight of surrender as we apply to our life as followers of Jesus?

It’s not our GOP or NRA bumper stickers. It’s not the Santa Clause kneeling before baby Jesus we put in our yards at Christmas. It’s not that we know the exact moment to lift our hands during worship. It’s not even the way we can throw quotes of Scripture into everyday conversation: i.e. Co-worker: “How are you today?” You: “Well, in the words of Acts 3:8, I’m just walking and leaping and praising God.”

The sight of surrender in the Christian life has always been love. This love consists of love for God and love for others. It consists of loving our neighbors, as well as our enemies, as we love ourselves. It consists of loving the self-righteous, the sinner and the Samaritan. It consists of loving in the pleasure of joy and in the midst of pain.

When we surrender to God (using surrender as the summary of the teachings we mentioned earlier) the act that accompanies it, the sight of surrender, is love.

Love is a tricky thing, however, because just like surrender, saying and acting are two different things. In 1 John 3:18, the Apostle John tells us not to love just with words but love in “deed and truth.” Love takes action (deeds) but it also takes truth.

If we want to surrender to God and show that we are surrendered to God, the sight of that surrender is love- love in action and love in truth. We know, we understand, we see actions of love (or love in action) but what about love in truth?

We love in truth when we can come before God and not have any regrets in the way our actions have shown love. We love in truth when we can come before God in confidence that we loved our enemy in the same way we loved our neighbor. We love in truth when we can come before God in confidence that we loved the “sinner” the same way we loved ourselves. We love in truth when we can come before God in confidence that we loved Christ more than we loved our own lives. Any other kind of love isn’t a love in truth.

There have been several decisions both locally and nationally that have church members and Christians questioning those decisions and wondering how to respond. I believe the only response is that we, as Jesus followers, show the world that we have surrendered to God and that love becomes the sight of that surrender as we love in deed and love in truth.

We believe…but what does it mean? Part 3

Absolute truth. From the time I graduated high school until just a couple of years ago, every Christian worldview seminar and every apologetics class was focused on the concept of absolute truth. The argument of absolute truth went something like this: if I could convince a person skeptic of Christianity that absolute truth exists, then they would have to accept that God exists because where else would absolute truth come from if not from God? It was toted as the end all argument to postmoderns everywhere.

However, in flying the banner of absolute truth, we really failed in two key ways. First, the church misread and demonized postmodernism rather than seeing it as an opening of opportunity to engage a whole generation that sought to bring mystery back into a world composed of scientific formulas and purely physical observations. Second, through the process of first establishing absolute truth then deducing God from that basis, absolute truth became an idol and led to the idolatry of absolute truth. In the quest to prove God, absolute truth became the Great Divine under which God became subservient.

Two questions naturally arise. What does absolute truth actually mean? And how do we take absolute truth (a legitimate Christian belief because truth is found within God) and recast it back into its proper place?

Let’s take each in turn. I usually hear absolute truth defined in terms of moral absolutes- there is a definitive right and wrong. What this definition fails to take into account is that what we often see as definitive right and wrong actually derive more from our values as Westerns than our values as Christians. In other words, if we were immersed in an Eastern, African or South American culture, then our absolutes may not seem so absolute. Instead of viewing absolute truth solely in terms of morality or right and wrong, I propose that we write a new definition and thereby place absolute truth back in its proper place.

Two new phrases have been circling around in my head that attempt to rename absolute truth in such as way as to place as deriving from God and not the other way around. The two phrases are: authored truth and originated truth. I think I like the phrase “authored truth” the best. It connotes that truth is not a force or entity that is somehow separate from God and that God has to follow somehow. Rather, it recognizes that truth has an author and an originator. While I have argued elsewhere that belief and unbelief in God is, in fact, illogical, meaning that there is not a way to fully prove or disprove God’s existence and we each come to God with our share of proofs, doubts, answers and questions. However, that does not mean that we cannot use our minds to think of God, deduce attributes of God, think about how the message of God works within the world and ponder ways of communicating that to people; in fact, this is called theology. A discussion of truth can be one of the ways we think about God, as long as we keep truth under God and not as an idol above God.

We believe in authored truth.


© Ryan Vanderland 2014

I’m a Protesting Good News-er: Part 4 – The Curious Case of Calvin

In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, we have spoken mostly about definitions- what does it mean to get back to heart of Christian Protestant Evangelicalism? We have seen that to be “Protestant” means to be protesters toward the inclusion of others. We have seen that “Evangelical” means to be people who believe and proclaim the Good News of Jesus. Finally, in Part 3, we discovered that to be “Christian” means to be followers of Jesus.

In the final two posts in this series, we will examine the socio-political aspect of Christian Protestant Evangelicalism through the diverging views of John Calvin and William of Orange.

In Post 3, I mentioned that when Jesus ascended into heaven he gave us, as his followers, two things: his name and his command or his mission. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gives the disciples the command or the mission to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” As followers of Jesus there is an understanding that we will tell others the Good News of the Gospel with the belief that God’s Holy Spirit will show them that the message of Jesus is real and is true.

The question is not whether Christians should or should not be telling others the Good News of Jesus, we know we should. The question becomes- how should Christians tell others and how should our message affect the social and political aspects of our lives?

These two questions are at the forefront of many people’s minds at the moment. Within the current presidential race, people are faced with a decision about which candidate to vote for and one criterion many people use, whether right or wrong, is religious conviction. At the same time a recent Pew Research survey reported that 1 in 5 American adults now profess no religious affiliation and 88% of those who reported their religion as “nothing in particular” noted that they are not looking into any religion. * Another Pew Research study found that 38% of Americans say that religion has an influence on their voting decisions but 60% of “highly committed evangelicals” said that religious beliefs “frequently affect their electoral choices.” **

With those statistics as a framework, let’s look at the second of the two questions previously mentioned with a look at the life of John Calvin.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the first second-generation reformers, being 26 years younger than Martin Luther. Calvin was born and raised in France and while we know that Calvin’s father worked a secretary for the bishop in their town, we do not know much about his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism. Calvin’s embrace of Protestantism eventually forced him to leave France and settle in Switzerland where he finished Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1535. The wide publishing of this work made Calvin slightly famous and while, literally, on his way to a life of scholarly pursuits he was compelled by an old friend to remain in Geneva (where he had stopped for one night) and aid in the reform movement within the cityDuring these years in Geneva, there was a constant struggle over who would control the religious and political affairs of the city- Catholics, Protestants, the Gevevan Council, other Swiss cities, and Calvin with his friend William Farel- all sought control. In 1538, both Calvin and Farel were forced to leave Geneva in exile.

After several years in exile, Calvin was invited back to Geneva to continue where he left off in his reform efforts. Only this time, he was given the authority that he lacked in his previous time in Geneva.

Calvin took this authority and proceeded to forcefully create an “authentic” Christian community. Calvin created a “not-so-secret ecclesiastical police” who would bring punishment for Genevan citizens who sang indecent songs, danced, played games of chance, insulted French immigrants or missed worship. Calvin’s “ecclesiastical policing” came to a head in the case of Michael Servetus. For several years Servetus and Calvin exchanged letters on theological issues. While Seretus’ positions on many theological issues would still be considered outside Christian orthodoxy, it also appears that Servetus simply enjoyed the rigors of debate and didn’t have a problem with thoroughly insulting an opponent then inviting him over for dinner. However, when Servetus decided to visit Geneva and his “friend” Calvin he was put on trial for heresy and burned at the stake.

For Calvin, a natural expression of his Christianity was moral obedience. This is, of itself, not a wrong expression, how Calvin instituted his obedience should concern every Christian- especially as we approach the upcoming elections. Christians who look to politics to accomplish what the Church should accomplish turn truth into tyranny.

When truth becomes tyranny, Christianity becomes conformity, God becomes government and grace becomes a grave.

Is that the inevitable conclusion? If Christians vote their “Christian values” will the result be “ecclesiastical policing?” How should Christians influence the culture without legislating culture?

The answer is truth but not a truth leading to tyranny but a truth that, as Jesus said, will set you free.

What is the truth that sets us free? Look for the final installment of this series as we explore that question through the example of William of Orange.

© Ryan Vanderland 2012


* ““Nones” on the Rise: One-in-five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; October 9, 2012.  http://www.pewforum.org

** “Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus (Part II).” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; July 24, 2003. http://www.pewforum.org

Biographical information on John Calvin and Michael Servetus in this post taken from The European Reformations: Second Edition by Carter Lindberg; Blackwell Publishing, 2010.