Many of the debates surrounding the issues that we address at the Bassetti Foundation could relate in some way to a lack of absolutism. An individual must make moral and ethical decisions without a black and white idea of right and wrong (in the biblical sense). Conversations surrounding this idea led me to take up an interest in the religious teaching of ethics.
Here in Cambridge sandwiched between MIT and Harvard and the biotech companies is a huge array of churches and temples of many religions and denominations. In this post I interview the head pastor of probably the fastest growing congregation in Cambridge.
Adam Mabry is head pastor of the Aletheia Church in Cambridge Massachusetts. The church is situated within the YMCA, midway between Harvard and MIT. I became interested in the church as a research subject after reading their literature advertising bible classes that seemed to very much take Foundation interests as their object of study. Moral and ethical decision making based upon the ten commandments to give just one example.
The church is unusual in that it is new and in rapid expansion. The pastor is under 30, and its fast growing congregation is drawn from the local area, a congregation that includes many Harvard, MIT and other institutions’ professors and researchers. I met with Adam several times before recording the following interview, and we discussed decision making, responsibility and ethics at length. My interest is in learning how an institution with very similar aims to the Bassetti Foundation communicates these aims and works towards achieving them, using different avenues of a possibly shared, possibly very different belief system.
The following is a transcription of our conversation.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview Adam. I would like you to tell us a little about your church and your position within the church, the position of the church and your congregation.
Sure, The name of the church is Aletheia, which is the Greek word for “truth.” In the gospel of John when Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life” this is the word that the gospel writers use in Greek. It literally means ‘that which is no longer hidden but revealed”, so for the Christian truth is not a proposition that we have identified as a workable pragmatic solution. The Christian view is truth as being the revealed person in facts, that came in Jesus Christ. This is a traditionally orthodox view of Jesus that is 2000 years old.
Aletheia could be put in the camp of a modern evangelical congregation. I hesitate to use the word evangelical, not because it is not true but but because when you say the word it has obvious political and social connections that aren’t necessarily part of that word. We are a very gospel-centred church, we are very excited about the story of the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the bedrock and foundation that everything else is derived from–from ethics, to how to raise your children, how to relate to God… everything centres on the gospel.
In that sense we are evangelical. We are orthodox in the big capital O sense that we affirm all the creeds that we Christians all agree on. What is perhaps unique about us is that our church is about 2 years old, and in that time we have grown unusually fast, particularly for New England. The statistics that I am most familiar with say about a quarter of the US population lives in New England, and only about 2 to 3% regularly attend a church that would be remotely like ours. This is obviously very different to other parts of the USA where that number is far higher.
So for our church to have grown so quickly is at least statistically unique. Our group of people is ethnically, educationally and socially diverse, and generationally diverse, so God seems to have brought together a wonderful, diverse, and very colorful group of people. They do not all look and sound like me.
And we are here in Cambridge, midpoint between MIT and Harvard.
Not known for its religious fervor!
No certainly not. I presume though that you have a fair group in your congregation of scientists and philosophers etc
My interest is in responsible innovation and how we can educate or instill responsible thinking into decision makers. How do you feel your church has a place in this debate and how do you deal with it? I know you have your discussion groups.
Yes we do, we have a few different teaching outlets. One is our Sunday morning sermon, and anybody would be pretty familiar with what a sermon is and what it looks like. We also have something called the Aletheia Institute where we teach classes on a semester basis, for a much deeper, pointed discussion about biblical themes, books in the scripture, etc. Then we have another group, which is most relevant to your question, called Life and Doctrine.
Anyone can come, and over 7 weeks we discuss the Christian story and interact through questions. Many of those questions are related to ethics, especially questions of evil and suffering, gender issues, sexuality or family and of course how to proceed with innovation and education which in this city comes up quite often, especially when the frontiers of innovation and education begin to but up against pretty firm ethical fences that humanity has agreed upon for a millennium or 2.
I think our church makes a very particular effort to break down the sharp divide between someone’s private religious experience and their public life, or how they live outside their Sunday or outside of their classroom or outside of their interaction with the church.
If there is an “upstairs” which is the private life and a “downstairs” which is public life, we want to collapse that distinction altogether. This is because, well, from what I understand it is unchristian, un-biblical. No one can actually live this way. This distinction is the left over mental furniture from the enlightenment and renaissance when men even as brilliant as Kant basically said, “well you have to live your life this way: we will live down here as though God isn’t there and we live by rationality, but up here we want people to believe in God because it is helpful to make them ethical people.” Meanwhile philosophers to the right of him said, “Well let’s leave that out, we will just live down here in the lower story of rationality.”
There is an historian named Mark Noll who wrote a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The first sentence of the book says that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. Because evangelicals, that is people who are committed to the principles of the bible, scripture, and ethics really retreated to the upper story and refused to lay any claim down here.
So the secular world said OK well you can believe whatever you want as long as you don’t pretend that your beliefs are real knowledge, and so the divide comes.
One of the reasons we named our church Aletheia is because Jesus came and said “I am the truth.” I am not half truth or personal truth but I am the truth, and the definite article seals it. He is not an angle of truth, he introduces himself as truth itself. And that idea is either true or false, it has to be contended with but there is no third way to interpret it as personal, private or religious truth. So our fundamental starting place is that if this is true then it is true about everything. It may be true or untrue and that is a decision that people have to come to, but if Jesus really is who he said he was then what he says about everything matters. There is a Dutch theologian Kuyper who has a magisterial quote about this, he says that there is not one square each of the entire cosmos over which Jesus Christ does not cry, “Mine.” In other words he has got something to say about everything, including ethics, biology, law, innovation, and technology and very much including the personal private sphere too.
I think that starting place alone has been a bit revolutionary to a lot of our people. We have Harvard cosmologists and MIT doctors and engineers and patent attorneys and guys who work down on State St and manage tons of money and that whole idea of ‘no, what Jesus says is true about everything’ is is quite revolutionary in a society that for 150 years has drunk the ‘Kool-ade’ of this 2 story fact/value distinction. You could see it writ large last year in the Vice Presidential debate. There was an interesting world view comparison when the question on abortion came up. I think it was Paul Ryan who said “I can’t make a distinction between my private religious faith and my public life”, And Joe Byden’s contrast was that he can’t not make a distinction between his private faith and public life. Now one of those is correct and the other incorrect for sure, because they cannot both be true. But this was interesting for the sake of comparison. And what we want to say is well we must approach reality as a total picture, not as your reality and then our shared reality, because that of course collapses upon itself. And that is why you see so much infighting.
This distinction is also the single most potent weapon I think in the secular hand, to de-legitimize a broadly Christian voice in the public square, just by simply saying “I am sorry you have to check your religion or your values, your ethics or your private religious subjective feelings about things at the door when you come down to the lower story and talk in public”. When President Bush was inaugurated in 2000 I think that was when he had to make a decision for government funding for stem cell research, embryonic stem cells, and there was a very passionate plea made by Christopher Reeve, I don’t know if you remember it, where he said something to the effect of “religion shouldn’t be allowed to have a seat at the table of this discussion”, and I think that is just very illustrative of this presumed epistemology in our culture.
In purely practical terms how can you go about then educating these decision-makers that are part of your congregation into behaving in a responsible way or at least thinking in a responsible way? I am talking about responsibility in the grander definition.
I would want to say that before I can give them information, they are first going to have to go through some kind of transformation. And they have to want to do that. So I think that a Judeo-Christian approach to ethics, that can be seen as a common starting point for the Western world, today has pretty much left. And I think that as my children become decision-makers and your children become decision-makers that will have almost completely gone as the ethical starting place. 100 years ago that was the common starting place in the human heart, so we could say good, or evil, or bad or praiseworthy and we all had a kind of general neighbourhood of what we meant. Now I don’t think that that is so nearly as much, because the world is far more connected, and what used to be a fringe group and be ostracized because they couldn’t get published or professorial positions, well now you can self publish anything, the Internet can bring together 10000 people that agree on something and they can start a news service and so all of these ideas are pretty much ubiquitous. Any idea.
Before I try to educate them I want them to experience the kind of internal transformation to want to do this. That is the kind of metaphysical or Christian part, they need to see the problem in the world isn’t merely the evil out there that needs to be stemmed, the problem begins with the evil in here that must be changed and dealt with, and that is not primarily done through education, it is primarily done through transformation by grace and faith in the gospel.
So once that kind of transformation begins to happen in a human heart then comes the task of pulling down the the bad ideas that are sort of left over from our common secular upbringing, this (division) being one of the most deadly. So for instance right now we teach a world-view class at the Alethia Institute. It is almost entirely about this, how to install tools in your brain to just identify this (division) and learn to show it and then collapse it. There is a great book called Total Truth by Nancy Piercy and she makes a very good point about this secular sacred dichotomy. We take that idea and say how can you, a student at Harvard, an undergraduate or business, attorney, public health worker, a broad spectrum, and by the end of the class I want them to write about 3 things that would change about your field if you didn’t have this distinction, if you began to think about your whole field from the ground up, from the perspective of the Gospel, Jesus Christ and everything he says about everything. It is total truth, what are 3 things that would change about law, or engineering for MIT students, or public health policy etc. So that is a very practical approach.
So there are 2 areas, we want to work for personal transformation , then we want to equip that transformation. So if you like to think in literation terms to engage our community as broadly as we can, to establish them in the faith, so that is the personal transformation mark. Then we want to equip them with the tools to engage others, and then we want to empower them to go and do the engaging themselves.
So hopefully a year from now the attorney who sits in this class will be in his office with his partners and when an unethical decision is about to be made he can stand up and say “well guys this isn’t going to work” and he can make the compelling argument that if that happens a thousand times then the culture will change.
I think this is the only way to do it. I think the mistake of the religious right 30 years ago was in thinking that culture is downstream from government. It is not, culture is upstream from government. At least in this nation, and most western democracies, so we cannot legislate for people to have heart change. Heart change causes legislation, so I think that if policy and the big picture of things is going to change it has to start with stuff like this.
Well your answer is in many ways very similar to the goal of the Bassetti Foundation, how to instill some kind of ethical thinking or behaviour into general society.
Yes, I would say too that… fundamentalism has of course a very bad name at the moment and that is understandable, but I heard somebody say once that fundamentalism is only a problem if the fundamentals you are committed to are bad. I actually think that everyone is a fundamentalist, it is just the fundamentals to which we are committed that seem to change. So the secular humanist is committed to personal human rationality as being the autonomous arbiter of truth. He is deeply, fundamentally and blindingly committed to that idea, and anything that might make that idea untrue he is going to disavow, and here I would bring in someone like Richard Dawkins, he has a PhD in zoology and is writing really bad philosophy books that the public gobbles up. He is a very engaging communicator but philosophically his ideas don’t hold water. But of course the public likes them.
Again I want to collapse these distinctions, we cannot but be fundamental about something, so instead I prefer a presupposition approach, like well lets just come to the table and be really open about our basic suppositions. I am coming from gospel centred orthodox Christianity as I said at the start, and here is why I think this is the best way to look at the world. In that way I am quite happy for the secular humanist or the radical environmentalist or whoever to come with their presuppositions and may the best ideas win. I do not think that trying to militate social change will ever work, but engaging someone in the faith and getting them to have a heart change and empowering them with ideas must be the way forward.
I just have one final question, these people that we jointly manage to empower and to think like this and behave like this are going to go back into their labs or office of legal firm, and they are going to have to try and behave in this way in the face of opposition, and that opposition is not going to lie down easily. Could we come up with some way of improving their chances?
Absolutely. The book Romans commands us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That is an ongoing project. I don’t think there is going to be one silver bullet but I think that those of us who have a kind of objective view of truth, particularly a religious God centred view of truth that God has revealed who and what truth is, and therefore impacts the way we should do science and engineering, medicine and innovation and treat other cultures, can win hearts and minds by simply demonstrating that these ideas work best.
The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history, bloodier than all of the other centuries that we know of combined, and it was in many ways the failure of all kinds of other world views, Nazism, Marxism, this kind or world view, these grand new ways of looking at the world, throwing off the shackles of our religious past and embedding in a new world view, well what was the fruit of them?
….I think a good starting point would be to have these discussions in a unheeded, gently kind winsome way, like “OK do you know that these ideas they have consequences?” Somebody said that if we don’t learn the lessons we are doomed to repeat them and just having these conversations would be a very good beginning. And I would say too that if individuals within the laboratory are going to engage this then they are going to have to be personally committed to a plan of continual renewing of their minds.
In other words when they are challenged, and they will be challenged, that should not cause them to look down in despair but to say well there is probably a really good answer to this question that I don’t know right now, let me come back to you. They can go and do their research, call their pastor, call their ethicist or the person that has developed that idea and go and buy the book and read it and then come back with an answer. The great thing about connectivity in the world today is that you can find information, bad and good, very easily.
But I want to root any ongoing ethical transformation in society just one floor deeper, in the personal transformation that the gospel brings obviously. I think that simple education is just playing by these rules, by simply educating people and trying to sanitize ethics of its messy religious foundations what
we do is end up ripping the heart out of the beast as it were or caging the lion. It just doesn’t work, it seems like it would work but recent history demonstrates that it doesn’t. What people are looking for is something that is true 24/7, at home when I am talking to my wife, when I am doing experiments in the lab or prosecuting a case or teaching in my classroom or whatever it is I do, and that is a global view of truth, and that is the part that I think has to happen before ethical transformation can happen. I also feel that this precedes social and family transformation or whatever, we have to go one floor deeper.
The Bassetti Foundation would like to thank Adam for the time he dedicated to this interview and wish his all the best for his mission.