James M. Gustafson says that this prayer from Kenya points to the principal theological and ethical issues of his recent book and expresses the passion which moved him to write it. This humble, searching beginning is fulfilled at the end with a ringing affirmation of the sovereignty of God, “The Almighty has his own purposes. God will be God” (p. 109). In between, the great promise, expectation and anticipation for a well-written, thoughtful feast for the reader is provided in this short, provocative book. An Examined Faith is a careful rewrite of the 2002 Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Seminary, which I had the privilege of attending.
For more than 50 years, Gustafson has been a widely read and respected student and professor of Christian ethics at Yale, Chicago and Emory universities. A hallmark of Gustafson’s approach to ethics is his conviction that the entire range of human experience, achievements and limitations are relevant to ethical considerations. Gustafson characterizes the human enterprise as inter-related, interconnected and interdependent. He uses the analogy of ideas as “traffic” flowing from each specialized discipline into “intersections.” The ethicist acts as a traffic cop, directing the flow of information and interpretation for non-theological disciplines regarding what is rejected, what is absorbed and what is accommodated. Locating differences in interpretation requires distinctions of description, explanation, evaluation and meaning.
Gustafson is consistent in insisting on exploring the flow of traffic at a deeper level because the same events, action and texts are addressed by both theological ethicists and those engaged in other academic disciplines. Gustafson expands the thesis of his 1996 book, Intersections, by digging deeper into the human fabric with a wide variety of examples and illustrations such as views on the Vietnam war, uses of nuclear weapons, the presence of poverty. He examines how the way we name and value an issue often determines what we see in that issue.
“One purpose of this book is to evoke in the readers a self-consciousness of how much traditional religious discourse has been altered by historical and contemporary sciences and other secular interpretations of the world.” Another purpose is to suggest to the reader some relevant ways to examine, think about, ponder and develop a self-examined awareness of an honest faith which can grow and mature by grace, hope and love.
An Examined Faith emphasizes the crucial significance of appreciating more fully the scope and limitations of our humanity in relationships to God and to others. By relating who God is and who we are as humans to what we ought to be and do, Gustafson challenges each of us to resist the temptations of not facing new truth, being content with half truths and in arguing that we possess all truth. The subtitle, The Grace of Self Doubt, provides a much-needed note of humility for current theological and ethical posturing. No easy answers or cheap grace are provided.
By beginning his book with a prayer and ending the work with a strong theological and ethical affirmation on the sovereignty of God, Gustafson provides a worthy example of how to think theologically and how to act ethically in such a world as this. He poses many extremely difficult questions and invites the reader to struggle with them. Do yourself a favor. Read this book and let it speak to you.