Monday, September 29, 2014

Is Strategic Planning Like Taking Cod Liver Oil? A Request for Insight!

            I’m going to think out loud here, about strategic planning at my church, Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) in Toronto.

            I’ve been pushing for strategic planning for a few months. But I’m apprehensive. I’ve been part of enough strategic planning exercises to know that they can easily generate lots of cynicism about top-down planning. I also know that you can’t count on supporters and stakeholders to somehow lead you to the Promised Land. I’ve seen lots of strategic plans barely limp along or fail.

            But at LPCC it is time. In this post I’ll offer some thoughts on why it’s time, but also some on why strategic planning is going to be tough. I’d love to hear from others who have gone through the process and met with some success with it in the years following—or not.

            Why is it the time right? Well, for starters, there is no strategic plan in place. This isn’t all bad. LPCC knows what it is about, mostly. We are a liberal congregation that invites reflection rather than insists on answers. The community here is really warm—especially for those who have been long-time members. The renovated sanctuary—though simple—is almost breathtaking, too. The classically oriented music program, including a choir with professional leads, is excellent.

            But—and this is critical—not having a strategic plan also means that we keep doing whatever we’re doing without reflecting much on it. That includes the programs that don’t work. We are also not thinking about how the world, the neighbourhood, and its own membership are all changing.

           The world has pressing long-term crises on its hands. Climate change, religious fundamentalism round the world, reliance on military solutions, population growth and poverty. Fixing these problems is like quitting smoking. You know its a good idea, but the promised benefits of quitting are so far in the future that it’s hard to get motivated to try.

           Today’s world problems are like that. If the church wants to be spiritually relevant, it can’t go with the lackadaisical flow our culture has adopted to solving these issues. But if the church does focus on mobilizing spiritual resources to deal with such world issues, it also risks alienating membership that is more interested in comfortable pews than activism.

           The Neighbourhood. In the sixty years since the church was built its neighbourhood has become quite exclusive. Mercedes and BMWs are everywhere. Nannies, private schools and school uniforms, mansions, exclusive health and fitness and golf clubs—they’re all part of the scene too. Not all members of LPCC live in the neighbourhood anymore. But many do. I am not one to condemn people for having money or being upwardly mobile. But I do realize, more and more, that—as with every other demographic—it takes a lot of wisdom and insight to speak meaningfully to this niche. What’s our strategy?

           Our membership is aging. Sunday morning is the wrong time for many youth to do church stuff. Sunday morning is generally taken by hockey and other sports. For slightly older teens or college students, late Saturday nights make Sunday morning church difficult. Younger people are doubly suspicious of all institutions. Young families are over-scheduled, under-resourced, and used to not going to church ever since they started college. Traffic is a killer.

           LPCC has some strengths. Attendance is stable and slowly growing. The leadership ran a successful stewardship campaign last year. We have some expert leaders with corporate and NGO experience who can help us with the strategic process—if they have time. Members are very committed to the church, and a core of them are willing to work endlessly for the church.

           But we have weaknesses too. It’s hard to find volunteers for a whole host of good, understandable reasons. The membership is quite happy to leave most church matters in the hands of paid, professional staff. Ownership of strategic and leadership matters is left to fewer and fewer members. Our classically oriented music program appeals to a smaller and smaller societal niche. Contemporary Christian Music, an obvious alternative, will never, ever fly, including not with me. 

           It is also increasingly hard for us to get heard in the neighbourhood. Where once LPCC was one of the key uniting institutions in our twenty block area, it no longer is. The future of LPCC, while always being rooted in this neighbourhood, is going to have to embrace a larger geographic area, and perhaps the large hospital and (French-speaking) campus across the street.

           And at the heart of the complicated process we’re about to begin, there is this nagging core question too. What are we ultimately about? What is our “good news?” Our current tagline, while catchy, also seems on balance a bit negative: “united, unlimited, unorthodox.” And what does that mean, anyway? So LPCC needs a core mission to rally round, one that responds to the deepest felt needs of our society, and one that is congruent with our liberal Christian theology.

           So, as I said, I’ve been thinking out loud. Who will tell me, and our church, what to do and what not to do at this critical moment? I’d love some good advice!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Hunger Games and Us

            Imagine a Canada where 90% of the population went to bed, hungry, every night. Imagine a Canada where the central government made everyone work a 12-hour day, paid them less than minimum wage, and never let them take a walk in the woods, either.

            Let’s also imagine that the other ten-percent of the population in this imaginary Canada, the rich, all live in the capital. And that the food and clothing, cars and radios that the 90% poor grow or manufacture all goes to the rich people in the capital. Nothing is left over for the poor.

            Now imagine one more thing. Suppose that every year, the rich people in the capital chose two teenagers from each of the provinces to fight in an arena. It’s like a Survivor television series type of fight, where only one of the teens can win—as in the Roman Coliseum game, with their gladiators. People in the capital love watching this game. In the lead up to the actual Survival Game—they call it the Hunger Games--contestants are paraded on stage and wear designer clothing to do meet and greets, and are all interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q. Once the contest starts, alliances between the contestants come and go. They try to outsmart each other, take all the food, and win special immunities while everyone in the capital bets on which Hunger Game participant will win. And along the way, a lot of blood and gore is spilled as contestants fight it out—to the death. It’s all very entertaining.

            This is the storyline of a series of novels that have taken the young adult market by storm. The first two movies—staring Jennifer Lawrence—of the Hunger Games franchise have grossed more than 1.5 billion dollars, worldwide, over the past two years. When the third movie, Mockingjay Part 1, debuts in a few weeks, it is expected that the movie will gross over 200 million dollars during its first week.

            The Hunger Games—as you can tell from the trailer—is incredibly violent—not as a celebration of violence, but—and here is where it gets interesting, for me—as a prophetic critique of violence. The Hunger Games movies are, in part, a commentary on our culture’s bloodlust, on how we as a society have learned to embrace, and even enjoy, violence.

            We do, right?

            The highest ratings on TV are for shows like Ultimate Fighting or WWE Smackdown, where blood and gore, real or simulated, are a regular part of the draw. Best selling video games, like Grand Theft Auto or God of War, regularly feature rape, murder, mayhem, and death—all to hateful dialog. I won’t mention hockey or football. As a society we tend to look the other way when the poorest, least educated, youngest people among us are forced to grow up, fight, and often die in a subculture of drugs, gangs, and violent prisons—although the beheadings of Western reporters by ISIS are very popular on the web. South of the border, people somehow have it in their heads that it is a God-given right to carry hidden handguns into schools and shopping malls.

            Much too soon after we sacrificed our young men and women to take trips down the Highway of Heroes, we have boots on the ground, again, in Iraq. While we all deplore ISIS, the West’s track record in the Middle East strongly suggests that our military solutions have simply not been a solution to these sorts of horrific internecine fights going on there. In fact, truth be told, we did more than our fair share in inciting those conflicts. After World War I, we drew the boundaries that would never work. We colonized those countries, rather than let them develop on their own trajectories—taking what we wanted while doing little or nothing develop democratic institutions. We meddled in their politics to give them rulers that they didn’t want—or, when they got the ruler they wanted, we sponsored coups. As much as Israel needed a homeland, we were completely tone-deaf to how our support of anything that Israel did also created millions of refugees and unending war. And so on. Our latest invasion of Iraq, on grounds that turned out to be completely wrong, has dropped that country into endless civil war and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Our military solutions and power politics over the past hundred years have left much of the Middle East a wasteland.

            Not what you would expect from “Christian” nations reaching out to other nations. Even a casual reading of the Old Testament shows that God does not condone violence, whether individual or national. The sixth command states baldly, and rather boldly, “Thou shalt not kill.”

            The Old Testament also warns the Israelites against depending on weapons of war if they hope to be a nation of shalom. In Psalm 20, for example, we read: "Some trust in chariots and some in horses but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Isaiah wrote, "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, and who trust in chariots but do not look to the Holy one of Israel, or seek help from the Lord." These words are especially ironic this week, given that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, just visited Egypt and when he was done, he happily announced that Egypt would join in the battle against ISIS. Salvation for the latest coalition!

            I understand, of course, that these texts were written for an Israel that was supposed to be a theocracy. I understand that the geopolitical “move,” that God wanted Israel, as his “covenant” nation to make don’t translate well into our secular era. I understand that along with this theme there are others in the Old Testament that seem to glorify war. Still, at the heart of the Old Testament there is a vision of shalom, and a call to wise governance to achieve it, that is far too easily overlooked.

            Moving on to the New Testament. Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." He adds, "Do not resist an evil person.” And, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." And rather than call down several squadrons of angels in F-35 Raptors to save him from at his arrest, in Matthew 26 Jesus actually follows his own advice. He turns the other cheek. He allows Judas and the leaders of the people and the Romans to seize him. He allows himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. To change the cosmos. And he asks us to do likewise.

            I find it surprising that so many of Christians pound the table and insist on taking the Bible literally about matters it hardly discusses, like homosexuality or whether you can use hymns in worship or free enterprise or even democracy; but that when it comes to a theme that is front and center from beginning to end for the whole Bible, that is, God’s desire that his people should wage peace and nonviolence, we say things like, “well, that’s The Sermon on the Mount. All exaggeration. An ideal to dream about. Can’t take that literally.”

            But the early church took the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ warning about not living by the sword unless you want to die by the sword, very literally. Every Roman soldier who converted to Christianity was required to get out of the army as soon as possible. All Christians who joined the army were excommunicated. Origen, a church father, put it this way: "We will not take up the sword against people and we will not learn warfare again, since we have become sons of peace through Jesus, who is our commander."

            Eventually, three hundred years after Jesus’ death, the Church changed its mind about violence. Constantine saw Christians as an untapped resource for winning the empire the old fashioned way—at the end of a sword. Christian leaders from Augustine to Calvin taught that Christians could fight in wars. They called it the Just War Theory. That is (far too briefly) war may be okay where a nation’s home territory is attacked and the war can be fought so that civilians and innocents will not suffer catastrophic deaths. We mostly thought that Just War Theory was okay, until it came to Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

            Still, even my own sense of justice and outrage at what the Nazis did makes it impossible for me to argue with the fact that Hitler had to be stopped. My grandparents harbored fugitives from the Nazis, and participated in the violent underground. These are told as heroic tales, not as deviations from one of the Bible’s core themes. But even so, the Bible’s overarching message about how Christians must avoid violence makes me nervous when it comes to most arguments that this or that war can be just—especially since it has become a knee-jerk reaction for us in the West to suppose that any war our nation fights in, so long as we can somehow figure out how to call the enemy “terrorists,” must be just. It is usually only ten years after—after Vietnam or Iraq—that we finally admit we were wrong.

            So now, preparing for war has become a way of life for us. As of about two years ago, Canada has officially decided to shape its armed forces for NATO-led combat rather than primarily for peacekeeping. And the American citizen in me is ashamed to admit that the US has fought something like 100 wars in the past 150 years, many of them to protect the interests of its banana companies, Wall Street investors and petty dictator-friends. When I lived in The Philippines, people knew that they had fought a bloody war for independence from the USA for fifty years, after the USA took the Philippines from Spain and promised, but did not deliver, on independence. You don’t learn that in American schools.

            We just don’t see the world politics through Biblical spectacles. Instead, we tend to put on our nationalist, we’re-always-right spectacles on instead. And in the meantime we have been made dead to the costs of violence through our entertainments and government speechifying. We especially love pretend violence. But that pretend violence may just be an emotional fifth column that also erodes our moral revulsion for real violence. We watch “shock and awe,” or read about drone attacks that kill scores of civilians as if from a Roman Coliseum portico, scorecards in hand. If the Hunger Games franchise of films teaches us anything, it is that a little media and a little government support go a long way to making even the most unthinkable horrors okay, just fun and games and patriotism.

            What do we make of this? I am actually not as certain as I have sounded so far. ISIS is revolting. But Jesus’ warning that those who live by the sword will die by the sword unnerves me. I feel very uncomfortable explaining the West’s reliance on armed conflict away. I can’t ultimately do it, in fact. This prophetic word from Jesus does not bode well for the United States or its Canadian allies, given our habitual fighting of wars in far away places that we cannot win, wars that seem to do more to radicalize another generation against the West than they do to bring on the peace. Jesus’ warning that those who live by the sword will die by the sword is a perfect word for those of us in the West who are numbed against taking violence on the computer console seriously. When will the other shoe drop? Will we too, finally, die by the sword? Will it be a thousand small cuts in the alley ways and homes and reservations and prisons and police actions that finally get us, or some one else’s shock and awe?

            The Apostle Paul said that Christians were chosen to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Did Paul mean only that we’d be able to make up when we disagreed with near neighbors? Or did he have a more cosmic vision? Is the Sermon on the Mount a radical call to really choose another path, as the early Christians certainly thought it was, or is it hyperbole?

            I am just as stuck with the rhetoric of winning the world for democracy and as the next person. When I visited the 9/11 memorial a few weeks ago, I was deeply saddened—here, then, were North Americans who died by the sword because (I know this is only part of the story—but an important part) we had used the sword overseas in a never-ending circle of violence. Sill, I think that ultimately, as Christians and as civilizations formed in part by the Judeo-Christian tradition, we ought to be betting our marbles on the counter-intuitive wisdom of Jesus. Those—including whole nations—who live by the sword, certainly will die by the sword. Does it follow, instead, that if we live by the hand outstretched to help, we will be helping ourselves?

            There is a poem by Harry Kemp that I first read in a sermon by Harry Fosdick, the famous Liberal preacher, that gets it right and goes like this:

I saw the conquerors riding by,
With cruel lips and faces wan,
Musing on kingdoms sacked and burned,
 There rode the Mongol, Genghis Khan.
And Alexander, like a god,
Who sought to weld the world in one;

And Caesar with his laurel wreath,
And like a thing from Hell, the Hun.
And leading like a star, the van,
Heedless of outstretched arm and groan,
Inscrutable Napoleon went,
Dreaming of Empire, and alone.

Then all they perished from the scene,
As fleeting shadows on a glass,
And conquering down the centuries came
Christ, the sword less, on an ass.

        So what do you think? Do we believe that? Trust that? And shall we try to figure out what that means, personally and for our nations, now, before we find ourselves looking back on another hundred years of war?

        Or, is something more like the Hunger Games our future?

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Think This Is about Paradigm Change and Comfort

            Over the past two years I’ve written several times about my transition from the Evangelical Christian Reformed Church to the Liberal United Church of Canada. To give you some idea of just how liberal my current congregation is, consider its tagline: United, Unlimited, Unorthodox. This congregation, and my new denomination, is a big switch from my Evangelical roots.

            One of the biggest changes I’ve had to embrace is actually very hard to define. It has to do with what I know and don’t know and what use it is. The easiest way I can get at it is, I think, by making up an analogy based on shoemakers. My grandfather made both regular and orthopedic shoes, my great grandfather owned a wooden shoe factory, and many other ancestors made and fixed regular shoes as far back as I can trace.

            There was a time, of course, when shoemakers all made their shoes from scratch. I still have some of the forms my grandfather used. Just being a shoemaker took a lot of expertise. I know from bits of family lore that his expertise involved designing and sewing and cutting and gluing and a good understanding of many kinds of orthopedic problems. He made special trips to Belgium to get the right kinds of leathers. Attaching soles to leather or cloth so that they didn’t come off was very difficult. His was a hard skill to learn, full of insider knowledge, much of it passed down from father to son.

            Now imagine that one day—say in 1950, when my grandfather was at the height of his powers, the Nike shoe company somehow time-travelled and came to his Dutch town. I think it is safe to say that his business would have taken a huge hit. Say what you like (or don’t) about Nike and most other modern shoe companies, they know how to make good, comfortable, shoes. Their labs and researchers and production lines have improved the kind of shoe that is available to us in many ways—fit, materials, ease of walking, weight, and so on. And, relatively speaking, since they're mass produced, they are cheap--especially if having a name brand doesn't matter that much to you.

            Well, if Nike had come to my grandfather’s small Dutch town in 1950, his special expertise, his insider knowledge, his years of honing his skills, his contacts with other shoemakers—all of it would almost become useless overnight. Mass production backed by much greater insight into materials and how feet work would have made his shoe shop obsolete overnight.

            And so he’d have to change his career. And what then? He knew shoemaking from scratch, but he didn’t know carpentry or auto repair or accounting. He wasn’t educated enough to be a teacher or pastor. The fact is, if he lost his ability to make shoes almost everything he knew--as well as his tools and shop--would be almost useless.

            Well, that’s a bit like what happens when, as a pastor, you change denominations. Belonging to something like the Christian Reformed Church is an “insider” business. Many of its unique theological concerns just don’t have much traction anywhere else. Predestination? The Ubiquity of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper? The ordo salutis? The historicity of Genesis? All of these are nonstarters in most Liberal church settings. The confessions? All but unknown. The Christian Reformed Church’s unique history—Christian Day Schools, Kuyperian influences, Groen van Prinsterer, Dooyeweerd, The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority—also mostly unknown. The theological traditions and their concerns raised by that history—the pietists vs. the doctrinalists vs. the transformationalists—it all seems quaint. Exegetical rules that hold sway in the Christian Reformed Church seem irrelevant in the United Church since the presuppositions about what scripture is, about what we can know of authors’ intentions, about how objective any interpretation can be—all the presuppositions are just different. 

            I sometimes feel as if I’m a late nineteenth century shoemaker dropped into the twenty-first century Nike reality. The specialist knowledge I had as a Christian Reformed pastor, the familiarity I had with its small group of pastors and theologians, the craft of doing theology in that perspective—very little of it translates very well to my new setting. Communication between my old and new paradigms is—as philosophers sometimes say—incommensurate.

            Mind you, I’ll never regret the excellent education I received in that other paradigm. I still respect many who work in that paradigm deeply, even if I changed my mind. And now, turning to the concerns and presuppositions at work in the new world I’m now a part of, I also feel a bit at sea. I don’t know the theological roots of this new tradition nearly as well as I knew my old roots. I certainly don’t know the politics or people or procedures like I used to. The outlook, the preoccupations, the vision and hopes and dreams are all different. 

            I’d add that looking back now, I’d say that as a Christian Reformed pastor, I never realized—or, rather, over time I only slowly realized—how narrow and tribal my concerns, battles, ideas and ministry usually was. We were engaged in building our own Maginot fortress, oblivious or condescending about the fact that the world all about has changed, so that as well thought out and sturdy as our fortress was out front, the backdoor was completely open to paratroopers and flanking manoeuvres.

            My new setting suffers some of the same, in reverse, I guess. In both settings I’m a bit taken aback at how clubby we are in churches in our own theological family and how closed we are to thinking outside of the boxes we’ve constructed for ourselves. In our day-to-day life and in how we actually work at the priorities we’ve set out for ourselves we mostly carry on as if our local, denominational specialist knowledge is the most important thing ever. Meanwhile, other Christians in other traditions shrug their shoulders and think our preoccupations are all a bit strange—if not totally out to lunch. They smile, politely but dismissively, when we talk about those preoccupations.

            There is a great deal of comfort that goes with always staying at home, spiritually and academically. If you can make a living playing with your favourite hobbyhorses—and win respect from people you care for while doing so—why change? I ask myself that sometimes. It wasn’t easy, and there are no guarantees that having made the change I’ve finally figured it all out. I clearly haven’t.

            It’s a loss. It’s weird. But paradigm change does happen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Skepticism (or Is It Scepticism?).

A few days ago, on my Facebook feed, someone quoted Dallas Willard on scepticism. Lots of people gave this quote a big “Like.” Willard’s words irritated me though. What follows, I confess, is a bit of a screed. In any case, this is what Willard wrote:

"We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character … Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright."

Clearly, Dallas Willard did not think very highly of skepticism (we’ll run with the American spelling, I guess). But is he right?

Well, for starters, in fairness to Willard, he doesn’t actually say that skepticism is bad in itself. It is our culture’s skeptical “fashion” that he specifically has issues with. That’s good, because individual skeptics have often made valuable contributions to our shared good or understanding. We could go as far back as Socrates, for example and his doubts about the Greek pantheon—not that the people of faith in his era were very tolerant of his skepticism. Jennifer Hecht, in her book Doubt describes the role skepticism played in the theologies and philosophies of dozens of important scholars—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists—since Socrates. The scientific method itself is based—in part—on a systemic skepticism that other scientists actually got it right. New theories, for example, don’t have much currency until other scientists have been able to replicate the experimental results that undergird those theories. Without skeptics we might still believe in a flat earth or a geocentric universe—or, moving on to other widely held notions—the inferiority of First Nations or African peoples, or the Manifest destiny, or the idea that God helps those who help themselves.

On the other hand, it is hard to separate individual skeptics from the culture they are a part of. Can one really say that some cultures are more or less skeptical than others? I don’t know. So, for example, I live in Toronto. You don’t have to drive far to find mosques, temples, synagogues, churches, and even the odd cathedral. People of many different faiths worship in these buildings. Most of them probably have a deep faith in their own religious outlook and deep skepticism about the faiths of people who don’t believe as they do. So what are they? True believers or religious skeptics?

Of course, there are also scads of people in Toronto who hardly ever think of religion or philosophy. They go along to get along. They are invested in “me, myself, and I,” though most of them don’t even realize it themselves. Their choices are uninformed by wider study or self-examination. They’re not skeptics about anything. Perhaps they construct syncretistic and personal faiths out of all sorts of otherwise unrelated beliefs. This sort of uncritical worldliness, in fact, is often the butt of many sermons and criticism from Christians. Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, once wrote: “One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we’ve developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.” Muggeridge, I take it, would not agree with Dallas Willard about the central role that skepticism has played in our culture. He wishes for more.

I do agree that sometimes the press likes to sensationalize the latest intellectual fad—the new atheism, perhaps—because it is scandalous and that makes it newsworthy in their eyes. But it is only scandalous because the press thinks most people will be shocked by such outrĂ© ideas. Some of these skeptics do, of course, make a big deal of their views—sometimes they’re posers—but that has more to do, I think, with their marketing savvy than anything else. Ultimately, I think our culture—between those who could care less about ideas, pro or con; and those who have very settled ideas—our culture isn’t of one mind on skepticism at all. In The New York Times, for example, columnists like Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and Nicholas Kristoff regularly and intelligently reflect positively about the role or potential of faith. Not too many people, in any case, would deny that these writers exercise “intellectual method and character.” And of course, there are thousands of “religious” scholars in every field who do likewise.

I also wonder what Dallas Willard means when he says that, “for centuries” our culture has been skeptical. Will Durant famously suggested that the “Age of Faith” lasted from Constantine’s conversion until sometime around the fourteenth century, with beginning of the Renaissance. Of course, it was usually uninformed faith, as most Christians couldn’t read and knew little more than the Ten Commandments, a few Jesus stories, and the Lord’s Prayer. No Bible studies or Religious Confessions or skepticism for them. I can’t help but think their inability to be skeptics was also their loss, though.

Since the “Age of Faith,” there are some pretty impressive skeptics—but also some pretty impressive believers, too, as any historian or philosopher will be happy to explain. So I think skepticism is pretty hard to tie down to the overall culture of any era. Were the Reformers skeptics for calling Rome’s sway into question? Has Christian practice always been in decline since the American Revolution? I don’t think so. Before the Great Awakening, in the United States, church attendance was probably quite low (though this is sometimes disputed). But the highpoint of church attendance in North America was almost certainly in the years directly after World War II. Given the consistently large percentage of North Americans who went to church or synagogue until very recently, it is hard to see skepticism as holding great sway in our culture for hundreds of years.

Of course, one possibility that Willard doesn’t consider is that skeptics are right, and non-skeptics are really as stupid as cabbages. For example, what about climate change deniers? Six-day creationists? Evolution deniers? People who believe Obama is a Muslim (17% according to a 2012 Pew poll—37% more didn’t know)? Being gay is a choice? Apparently some FOX commentator has been arguing lately that there is no such thing as White privilege. We’re back to something like Muggeridge’s quote again, except that the people who will believe anything, in this case, tend to be conservative Christians. This group, in fact, is the one that for all their theological wizardry too often displays little very little intellectual method and character when it comes to other matters. Or so I think. Still, I wouldn’t argue that all people who hold such views are as stupid as cabbages. It isn’t true to fact, or nice to say so. And many of them are actually as sly as foxes.

Well, then, there is also the historic and recent non-skeptical certainty of the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Maoists, the North Korean regime, Al Qaida, ISIS, and other religious fundamentalists in several religions (as well as their followers), and right-wing conspirators like the Aryan nation types or those who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma. The truth is that there are far too many instances in recent history that argue for a lot more skepticism, not less.

There is more in Willard’s statement that bugs me. Are all skeptics individualists? Probably not. A lot religious skeptics I know, at least, are socialists. Many of my skeptical, non-religious friends are willing to pay higher taxes to support the universal Canadian health care system, or better public daycare, or better roads. Over the past century, a lot of important non-religious true believers have been communists. You don’t have to like them to be impressed—and dismayed—by their certainty.

Ultimately, I’d say that Dallas Willard’s statement is just wrong. Perhaps even prejudiced and unkind. A gross over-simplification. A sweeping generalization. It suffers from lack of clarity. It makes him seem like a crybaby. Perhaps the fault is that he was quoted out of context. I hope so.

The truth is we—personally and corporately—cannot avoid faith and skepticism both. I certainly think our society would be better off if we all thoughtfully held to core Judeo-Christian moral views or positive communitarian philosophies. And we always need to test the spirits—and the fashions and the old dogmatic saws and the unspoken presuppositions—of our communities and culture. The trick—or wisdom—is to hold faith and skepticism in healthy tension, constantly examining ourselves, while making the good of all neighbours our ultimate life goal.