How Can You Think That?

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In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

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Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

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According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

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In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

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Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

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Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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