Friday, September 27, 2013

Are Mormons Christian?: Evangelicals, Modernity, and Cognitive, Propositional Definitions

There is a saying frequently attributed to a Chinese proverb: "If you want to know what water is like don't ask a fish." Regardless of the source the idea behind it is true: when someone is too familiar with their surroundings it becomes a blind spot that so influences their perspective that they aren't aware of it. It simply becomes something that is taken for granted. This is the case with Evangelicals and modernity. As Myron Bradley Penner argues in his new book on apologetics, modernity influences Evangelical assumptions on apologetics, theology, and as I will note in this post, it is also what is behind Evangelical definitions of Christianity that then serve as the backdrop for a major sticking point in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

I am currently reading and enjoying The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), by Myron Penner. The main thesis the author develops is that Evangelical apologetic approaches of whatever type are based upon the assumptions of modernity and its perspectives on reason. In particular, Penner states that, "In the modern philosophical paradigm, then, reason forms what I will call the 'objective-universal-neutral complex' (OUNCE)" (32). Penner identifies these features of reason in modernity in distinction to premodern views wherein, "reason is internal to (and possessed only by) human beings in a way that is universal, objective, and neutral" (32). Given these assumptions, apologists like William Lane Craig, and many conservative Evangelical theologians, present arguments, evidence, and theological propositions in ways that conform to the assumptions of modernity in regards to reason and epistemological justifications of belief. Penner takes issue with these assumptions and finds them far more secular than Evangelicals assume in the name of reason and its alleged objectivity and neutrality.

As Penner goes further in his description of Evangelicalism and modernity, he makes the interesting observation that, for  many (most?) conservative Evangelicals, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)" (36). While Penner explores this in relation to Evangelical apologetics, and to a lesser extent theology (after all, apologetics is a branch of theology), I want to consider this in relation to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

You don't have to search for or read much in dialogue and conversations between Evangelicals and Mormons to find the question "Are Mormons Christian?" raised by concerned Mormons. Evangelicals usually respond in the negative, and with certain historic, creedal, and doctrinal assumptions providing the foundation for that response. Mormons are naturally offended by this idea, as they have a different set of assumptions, with the idea that Mormons believe in and follow Christ, therefore they should be considered Christians. 

As Evangelicals and Mormons pass each other like two ships in the night on this topic I would note that members of both groups are missing an important element in exactly why Evangelicals would answer this question negatively. It goes beyond historic creeds and doctrines to some underlying philosophical assumptions. Evangelicals have so imbibed at the well of modernity and its philosophical assumptions that for them, as Penner notes, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)." This means that while Evangelicals connect these propositions to a relationship with Christ, even so, the cognitive acceptance of certain specific propositions are primary in their definition of what it means to be a Christian. The assumptions of modernity have become so intertwined with Evangelical thinking that, like the fish in water that knows nothing else other than its daily experience of its environment, that Evangelicals may not be aware of the extent to which these modernist assumptions impact not only its apologetics and theology, but also its ways of relating to those of other religions, as well as the formation of perceptions by those of other religions because of the views Evangelicals have of them that are shaped in part by the assumptions of modernity.

My friend and colleague at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Charles Randall Paul, once shared his observation that Evangelicals are the scientists and philosophers of their religion. I agreed with his assessment, and made my own observation that Mormons are the performers and artists of their religion. We certainly approach our religious pathways very differently. But the more I reflect on the "scientists and science of Evangelicalism" the more I realize how modernity has impacted us, even in the way in which we define what it means to be a Christian and relate our message to those in other religions.

Maybe it's time for Evangelical fish to jump out of the bowl and look around for a bit.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The World Table: Transforming our Incivility for Clarity of Thinking and Persuasion

There seems to be a growing recognition that something is not quite right about the way in which we engage each other over our differences on the Internet. In fact, some websites are changing their procedures in this area, and others are calling for a new platform that helps transform behaviors that make up this problem.

In August of this year The Huffington Post announced that it would no longer allow anonymous comments to be posted in response to their essays. A piece by Lorraine Devon Wilke explained why in "What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains." She writes, "On a societal level, particularly since the internet opened comment features under most offerings, negative dialogue has become the norm; the loud, persistent, often vicious norm of most online interaction. In fact, the degree of irrational response exchanged online is so high, so automatic, that one expects any article, no matter how logical, fact-based, positive, or even neutral, to be immediately ripped apart by trolls who seem bent on the task." After discussing some findings in Psychology Today on the psychological effects of focusing on negativity, she continues and describes the unfortunate results of such hypercritical and negative commentary on individuals who read it. She says that "the more one sits at a computer spewing savage, hateful criticism, the more one translates life through the filter of hostility and personal attacks, the more one builds brain pathways toward greater and greater negativity. In fact, as online commenters, media pundits and politicians have grown uglier and more malicious, the more the bar seems to have moved, making 'ugly' more accepted, more accessible." For The Huffington Post the way to address this issue is to disallow the posting of anonymous comments. The hope is that if people have to take public ownership of their comments and the way they relate to others that it will contribute to more positive and civil forms of exchange.

More recently included an essay that went even further in exploring the impact of uncivil exchanges on the Internet. This website is going further than HuffPo, and is removing the ability for readers to comment entirely. Suzanne LeBarre in "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," also discusses the impact of trolls on the shaping of perspectives of readers. Although they acknowledge that they receive lots of positive comments, the negative ones have an enormous ability to shape perceptions. LeBarre cites a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Broassoard about reader perceptions of a particular technology, which revealed that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."  From a New York Times op-ed the following results were discovered:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.

LeBarre states that this ability of uncivil comments to negatively alter perceptions of a story is causing readers to think uncritically about accepted scientific notions. For the way forward is to end the ability of readers to comment and interact with each other over ideas.

The final threads in this discussion come through a new book and another online essay. Os Guinness is the author of The Global Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2013). In this volume he sets forward a proposal for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, as well as the need for a civil public square. He recognizes that the public square is now far more expansive than it was previously given the importance of "new technologies and social media" which are so influential and formative that the "public square has morphed again through the power of the Internet and has gone from the physical to the metaphorical to the virtual." This worldwide platform means that "...even when we are not speaking to the world, we can be heard by the world," often by way of increased incivility and "degrading rhetoric" from anonymous individuals. Guinness wonders whether we can "in the next twenty-five years forge a new understanding of what it means for global citizens to debate other global citizens in a manner that the issues deserve..."

Related to this, in February of this year Sarah Perez argued at that "The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn't Exist Yet." While not mentioning trolls specifically, Perez does mention the problem of uncivil comments, as well as questions related to credibility. She states, "The problem, which the Internet hasn’t solved at all, and has in fact even made worse, is that opinions are not created equal and therefore shouldn’t be considered in equal measure. The Internet has put people on such an even playing field that we now have to create entirely new systems to verify who’s worth listening to. From Google rankings to Techmeme headlines to retweets and number of followers, we’re still struggling to figure out who deserves to be heard." Perez concludes her essay by writing, "We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard."

These various elements come together to paint a picture of a tremendous challenge. Serious issues need to be discussed, but it is usually the negative and polarizing voices that are the most influential. The result is that critical, thoughtful, and civil discussion and persuasion is stifled, and opinions are unfairly shaped along the way. The Internet has become a cyber extension of the physical public square and a very important place for discussion of the pressing issues of the day, but it is presently hampered by incivility. We need a new platform, a new mechanism to transform the way in which we engage each other to empower the best of what the Internet has to offer.

But while Perez opines that the best platform for online discussion doesn't yet exist, I'd beg to differ. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is currently involved in beta testing for The World Table. Participants must verify their identity and allegiances, and then agree to a set of ethical guidelines called The Way of Openness. Participants are then rated on the way in which they engage others, and rate others in similar fashion. The goal is to earn the highest rating possible as a badge of honor. Drawing upon accepted principles of social psychology that resonate with many religious traditions and ideologies, The World Table promises to change behaviors by shaming the trolls and making civil conversations a highly desired virtue, thus setting a new tone for exchanges about the most serious issues that divide us, from religion to politics and beyond.

A new movement for civility in the way in which treat each other over our deepest differences is taking shape. It's happening at The World Table. Come and take your seat.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

WIFE SWAP's Atheists and Christians: Reality Television and Lessons on Civility

I don't share many of my teenage daughter's interests in television, particularly the expressions of reality TV that she enjoys, but yesterday I found an episode of a program she turned on interesting. It was a past episode from the show WIFE SWAP from 2007 as it turns out. The basic premise of the show is to find two very different families and lifestyles and then swap the wives to live with the other families in order to set up a very uncomfortable two weeks for the women and the families they are staying with. The first week the wives have to live as the wife who lives in the home, and the second week the wives get to turn the tables and make the families live as they do in their own homes. Depending upon the types of families that participate, the program can be very interesting to say the least.

The episode re-aired yesterday brought together a family of white atheists and a black family of Evangelical Christians. These families could not have been more different as each embodied the stereotypes often attributed to them, the atheist family being heavily tattooed with edgy hairstyles and a wife with a shaved head, and the Christian family being very conservatively dressed. The atheist family prided themselves on being freethinkers, not only in the area of religion but also in regards to letting their children do whatever they wanted, and exposing them to almost everything in life, including their parents liberal attitudes toward sex. The Christian family prided themselves on the centrality of their faith that informed every aspect of their lives, including ideas about male and female gender roles in the home and workplace to the influence of God in every aspect of life such as having their children pray before tests so that God could remind them of answers for higher grades. In the atheist home the wife worked long days in an in-home Internet business while the husband took care of the cooking and cleaning, while in the Christian home they followed "what God's Word says" as the husband worked outside the home and the wife and daughter were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning. The husband and son did none of it because of "Man Law," the allegedly biblical ideas related to masculine and feminine roles.

After the wives swapped homes there was the much anticipated shock of the women and the families they were staying with. The clashes were expected by the audience, but what was most interesting was the way in which each of the wives and families attempted to present their alternative worldview perspectives to others who were at odds with them. Being at such polar opposites it was clear that the families would never likely persuade each other and held irreconcilable differences. What then to do? Unfortunately, each took the path of coercion and ridicule. For the atheist family with the swapped Christian wife, they made it clear that God was a myth and a crutch, and Christians were anything but freethinkers, conspiring to force their limited view of reality and restrictions on fun on others. The constantly reminded the Christian woman of not only their choice in skepticism, but their need to mock what others held sacred. In the Christian home with the swapped atheist wife, they too felt compelled to share their beliefs with a lack of any sensitivity or framing for the perspectives of their unbelieving guest. They forced the atheist woman to go to church and participate in a Bible study against her express desires. She relented only because of the rules of the television program. When it was time for the wives to impose their will and perspectives on the other families, they followed suit and coerced family members into conformity with their understanding of reality. The atheist wife took away all religious items and icons, and the Christian wife forced the family to go to church and made her temporary "husband" preach with a Bible in hand in public "like he believed it" as punishment for violating her rules. The result of much of this was anger, conflict, shouting, ridicule, and confirmation on both sides that the perceptions of "the other" was confirmed and their lifestyle with its supporting worldview was justified and the only legitimate way to see things.

Even with these clashes there were positive aspects of this program. At one point when the atheist family went to church with the Christian woman they expressed their surprise that rather than being preached at they were able to play games and socialize with others that seemed to care for them. The atheist father goes on record sharing his appreciation for these kinds of expressions of Christianity. In another segment the Christian father comes to reassess his assumptions about the roles of men and women that he has connected to his faith, along with a willingness to allow his teenage daughters greater freedom in socializing with boys and girls. When the participants in this television program were willing to move beyond coercing and abusing others with and through their respective traditions and ideologies then positive things happened.

And this is where we can learn something positive and important from an unlikely source in pop culture. While WIFE SWAP thrives on the drama of the clash of personalities, and in so doing presents the all too common ways in which human beings interact with each other over their differences, at times it can also remind us of the way in which to navigate more carefully through them. While retaining confidence in our convictions, rather than using coercion to impose our perspectives upon others in the hopes of persuading them to join us, there is great value in respect and a softer hand. At the conclusion of this program the two couples come together to discuss their experiences and what they learned. At one point the topic of forcing perspectives on others comes up with examples on both sides, and the Christian woman states that at least the atheist father could have respected her in her faith commitments even while seriously disagreeing with her choices. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we practice The Way of Openness, a set of guidelines that are put into place as we interact with others. One of these guidelines is "Be Kind:"
Kindness will go further towards building trust than any other virtue listed here. Kindness is never outdated. It is not weak, or naive, or small. It changes hearts and minds and can quickly tear down walls because genuine kindness is easily recognized and understood by everyone. BUT...nothing is more offensive or destructive than kindness that is forced, phony, or insincere.
WIFE SWAP is produced for entertainment, for viewers to take joy in the clash of competing family perspectives. When an atheist and a Christian family go head to head, the audience is given the fight that it was hoping for. But in this episode it got a little bit more. The clash of these families is not contained within the walls of the family homes, but instead is found within the public square. It is also not restricted to these two groups but involves a multiplicity of religious and ideological perspectives. For those interested in moving beyond the clash of perspectives we are reminded that kindness and respect not only work toward civility in a mutifaith public square, but they also hold greater persuasive power.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Patheos Review of Os Guinness' "The Global Public Square"

I highly recommend Os Guinness' new book The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (IVP Books, 2013). The volume's website provides this overview description:
How do we live with our deepest differences?

In a world torn by religious conflict, the threats to human dignity are terrifyingly real. Some societies face harsh government repression and brutal sectarian violence, while others are divided by bitter conflicts over religion's place in public life. Is there any hope for living together peacefully?

Os Guinness argues that the way forward for the world lies in promoting freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. He sets out a vision of a civil and cosmopolitan global public square, and how it can be established by championing the freedom of the soul—the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In particular he calls for leadership that has the courage to act on behalf of the common good.

Far from utopian, this constructive vision charts a course for the future of the world. Soul freedom is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. We can indeed maximize freedom and justice and learn to negotiate deep differences in public life. For a world desperate for hope at a critical juncture of human history, here is a way forward, for the good of all. Guinness' perspectives and the proposal he sets forward for a public square that embraces freedom, civility, and diversity dovetails quite a bit with my own perspectives and work, and that of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. 
My review of this volume, titled "Beyond Interfaith Dialogue: A Review of 'The Global Public Square:'Os Guinness makes a bold proposal for a new public square, and Evangelicals must work with others to embrace its civility, freedoms, and diversity," was recently published at Patheos and will soon be available at the Patheos Book Club. My review concludes with the following:
Os Guinness has provided a real service in not only raising the issues of religious freedom and civility in diversity, but in also providing a proposal for addressing them. He risks being dismissed as setting forth mere hyperbole, but I believe he is correct to state that, "How we deal with our deepest religious and ideological differences in public life will be a defining issue for the future of mankind" (25). This book needs to be read and discussed widely. It is my hope is that Evangelicals will join Dr. Guinness in wrestling with the challenge of religious freedom, diversity, and civility, and be willing to link arms with other religionists and secularists in navigating a way forward in a new public square.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Os Guinness and 'The Global Public Square'

Os Guinness has a new book out, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (InterVarsity, 2013). I have written a review and hope to have it published soon and will post a link. It's one of the best books I've read in a while, and it overlaps significantly with my thinking and work with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Here is a video from a lecture where Guinness touches on some of the main themes of his book.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fall 2013 Fuller "Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue" journal on New Religions

Cory Wilson, editor of Fuller Seminary's Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal, approached me in the recent past about writing the lead essay for a special issue devoted to new religious movements. Since I am a fan of the journal, and have previously written a responsive essay and book review for the publication, I accepted the invitation. In my essay for the forthcoming Fall 2013 issue, I provide a historical consideration of Evangelical responses to new religions, the rise and current dominance of counter-cult apologetic approaches, and the shift toward cross-cultural missions and dialogue means of engagement. Several people respond to my essay, including Sarah Staley, Gerald McDermott, Paul Louis Metzger, Joel Groat, and J. Gordon Melton. Philip Johnson wrote an essay on praxis related to NRMs. This edition also includes some helpful sidebars, including NRM summaries and statistical data, significant personalities, NRM stereotypes, a suggested bibliography, and references to the organizations I work with, including the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies and the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and Sacred Tribes Journal. This issue will be available soon, primarily in an electronic version via the website, and a limited number in hard copies. I was given an advance electronic copy for distribution that can be accessed on my page.

I would like to thank Cory Wilson, the layout designer, Fuller Seminary, and all the contributors for their part in putting together this great issue.