God of the Ship of Theseus: A Thought Experiment for Church Identity

The other night I was gazing upon the city skyline, and I counted about a dozen different cranes rising over the buildings.

I started wondering: if every brick and every slat of every building in Boston were eventually replaced, would it still be Boston?

In philosophy, there is a similar thought experiment: “The Ship of Theseus.”

To explain the Ship of Theseus, I give you Marvel Comics’ final episode of the show WandaVision, where the superhero Vision is confronted with essentially a clone of himself. They are trying to figure out which is the true Vision, so they turn to the Ship of Theseus.

 

 

The Ship of Theseus in an artifact in a museum. Over time its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”

One of the two superheroes named Vision replies, “Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.”

This thought experiment applies to churches, too. The congregation I pastor is only a little bit over 50 years old, and we still have some of the original planks and bricks of the church. Not the building anymore, sadly, but the people!

50 more years from now, when this church has its 100th anniversary, and no original plank remains, will it still be South End Neighborhood Church?

Yes. South End Church 50 years ago, South End Church today, and South End Church 50 years into the future—it’s all the real South End Church, no matter how much the parts and the people change.

Our task, then, in the presence of God, is to ask and prayerfully discern: what makes us us? What are the consistent ties that bind us together, past, present, and future?

And if we’re a ship, where are we going? Where is God leading us?


I keep hearing commentators make a big deal (as they should) about how this is the Boston Celtics’ 22nd NBA Finals appearance. The first few times I heard that stat, it was jarring. There is literally nobody on the team for whom that statement is true. Even Al Horford, their veteran, hasn’t been to an NBA Finals before.

But of course the team has. And there is something in the ethos, the DNA, the blood of this organization that serves as a through line, making the Celtics still the Celtics, even though none of the same people from the last Finals-making team are there now.

Organizations and churches and cities—like the ship of Theseus—have a culture, what some refer to as a thisness.

Those of us who steward these organizations in the present moment have the great privilege of discerning together just what that culture is—what is worth preserving, and what is worth culling, all in favor of living out our deepest identity and calling.

 

Christian Apologetics winner

We have a winner in the giveaway contest at Words on the Word for Zondervan’s primary source compendium, Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister.

I have weathered the storm, several flickers of the power on and off, and have selected the winner at random. (Actually, a random number generator is to thank/blame.)

And the winner is… Matthew Hamrick! Congratulations, Matthew, and enjoy the book. Thank you to everyone who participated and spread the word.

I reviewed the book here if you’d like to learn more.

Almost every Monday at Words on the Word (and other days, too) I review new books in the field of biblical studies, original languages, and theology. I also review Bible software. Check or bookmark this link to see all my reviews.

Christian Apologetics: free book giveaway

One good giveaway deserves another.

The other day I noted that Zondervan has just put out a primary source compendium called Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister.

I have an extra copy to give away (not my review copy). It’s a good resource to have on the shelf, and I know I’ll be turning to it in the future for the work and ministry I do in a college setting.

I reviewed the book here.

I will choose a winner at random. To enter the drawing, simply comment on this blog post with your greetings, thoughts about apologetics, favorite philosopher/theologian, etc. I will accept entries through Monday afternoon, with 3pm EST being the cutoff.

Then if you link to this post on your Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc., come back here to tell me in the comments section that you did, and you’ll receive a second entry. I will announce the winner just before 5pm EST Monday.

Christian Apologetics: a review

I still remember, as a 16-year-old, sitting down at my parents’ computer, hearing the dial tone, and logging on to AOL. I would do this often, not just to check the new technological miracle known as e-mail, but also to go into chat rooms (remember those?) and seek to share my faith with others online.

I made similar efforts at my high school, starting conversations when appropriate and generally just trying to be ready to speak intelligently and compellingly about my Christian faith.

This handbook by Peter Kreeft was a constant reference guide for me. I went on to major in philosophy at a Christian undergraduate school, where I took, among others, classes on the philosophy of religion, St. Augustine, and more. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion became a new resource to which I often turned. I had begun having philosophical and existential questions of my own by that point, ones that I experienced on a profound and at times troubling level.

I’ve always had an interest in the intellectual underpinnings of my Christian faith. And I’ve often been aware that what appear to be intellectual questions or questions of “the head,” are sometimes–when one digs deeper–questions of “the heart,” as well. Since college days, then, I’ve been a bit more cautious than I was as a 16-year-old in an AOL chat room about just how effective “apologetics” can be.

Zondervan has just put out a primary source compendium called Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister.

There are 54 selections divided into 11 parts, which you can see listed here (PDF) in the table of contents. Christian Apologetics begins with some methodological considerations in part 1, then moves right into various arguments for the existence of God–cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral, the argument from religious experience, and so on. From there the book narrows to more specific topics like the Trinity, the incarnation, miracles, the resurrection, the problem of evil, and more.

Christian Apologetics claims to be “a sampling of some of the best works written by Christian apologists throughout the centuries,” offering “a snapshot of Christian apologetics at its best across the spectrum of time and culture.”

The essays in this volume certainly are some of the best in apologetics. There is Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17, Aquinas on the cosmological argument for God’s existence, Anselm and Plantinga with the ontological argument for God, Pascal’s wager, Teresa of Avila on experiencing God, Anselm on the incarnation, Swinburne on miracles, John Hick’s “Soul Making Theodicy,” Augustine on free will, and Marilyn McCord Adams on horrendous evil and the goodness of God. Each of these essays is a classic and makes a valuable contribution to the area of apologetics.

The book spans “the spectrum of time” fairly well, with a higher concentration of 20th century writers. Just a couple of the contributors are women, and the overwhelming majority hail from Western contexts–this latter an admission of the book, but a weakness all the same.

A particularly pleasant surprise to me was the inclusion of an an article by R.T. France, in which he makes the case for the historical reliability of the Gospels, which must, he argues, be understood in their proper literary context as “highly selective” records of Jesus’ life with “only a loose chronological framework.” This is not due to deficiency of the Gospels; rather, it is how the Gospel writers intended to write:

The four canonical gospels will not answer all the questions we would like to ask about the founder of Christianity; but, sensitively interpreted, they do give us a rounded portrait of a Jesus who is sufficiently integrated into what we know of first-century Jewish culture to carry historical conviction, but at the same time sufficiently remarkable and distinctive to account for the growth of a new and potentially world-wide religious movement out of his life and teaching.

As I read I appreciated a statement in the book’s general introduction:

But arguments and evidences do not of themselves bring someone into new life in Christ. Here the work of the Holy Spirit is central, and we must be willing to surrender to his leading and his truth and his goodness if we are to truly dwell with the Lord.

I hadn’t yet learned this in the AOL chat rooms, but I’ve long since been convinced of it. So I had hoped to hear more in this book about the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics. There is a short (one paragraph) treatment by James K. Beilby in chapter 3 that asks, “What is the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics?” He rightly (in my view) sees it as “not a zero-sum game.” The apologist should be “significantly involved” yet “still hold that the Holy Spirit will determine the effectiveness of our efforts.”

Though the Holy Spirit receives treatment in the section on the Trinity (by Origen, Aquinas, the Creeds, and Thomas V. Morris) and on the Bible (Calvin and canonization), there is never more than Beilby’s paragraph treatment about the role of the Holy Spirit in the project of apologetics. Cogent though Beilby is, I would think “a snapshot of Christian apologetics at its best” should make more mention of something like the Wesleyan view of prevenient grace or even the notion that the Holy Spirit witnesses to a person’s heart before an apologist does. Only the former can enable the latter. Christian Apologetics is not without the exploration of other methodological considerations; I just would have liked to have seen more of this one.

Several other possible areas for improvement in a future edition could be more on faith and reason and how the two interrelate, as well as arguments for the existence of God that take into account and respond to the varous assertions made by the “new atheism” (anemic though it is).

All in all, though, this is a strong work, and I’m happy for it to sit alongside my old college text, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. Zondervan’s Christian Apologetics is a worthy, if basic, reference guide. I expect it will serve apologists well.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy, which I was given for the purposes of review, though without any expectations as to the nature of my review. Find the book at Amazon here (affiliate link) or at Zondervan’s product page for the book.