Questions Responded by Michael Clifton (38th WRC)
Questions Responded by Michael Clifton
Lay Minister at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Lawyer by profession
Question 1: How can I join, participate and practice the Christian faith as a student in K-W? by Art Tsai
Answer: Hi Art. There are many different Christian churches in the KW area, any of which would likely be pleased to receive you as a visitor or potential member.
On campus, as well, you will usually find Christian clubs; there are also colleges at both UW and WLU that are affiliated with Christian denominations: Conrad Grebel (Mennonite), St. Jerome’s (Catholic), Renison (Anglican), St. Paul’s (United), and Martin Luther (Lutheran Seminary) – although not all might be equally expressive of religious activity, and most are open to students of all faiths or no faith at all.
Also, I recommend contacting the chaplaincy office (https://uwaterloo.ca/chaplains/) who might help you find a place and way to experience and expand your faith.
Lastly, it is always available to every person to seek God individually and privately. Participating in a church or group is a way to enhance your faith and enjoy a supportive community, but communing with God through personal prayer and scripture study will afford you the chance to know him more directly and personally through the influence of the Holy Spirit. This will be true throughout your life and in any circumstances.
Question 2: How can I increase my faith when it seems to be in conflict with my analytical mind? Linda Sarina
Answer: Thanks, Linda. This is a common and challenging question – something that every person of faith needs to deal with. I hope my answers here are of help to you. (Remember, though, that like you I am just a simple human being; so these answers might not be “the” answers, but I hope they will point you in a helpful direction.)
First, know that it is okay to have these doubts and questions. There is no faith if there is no doubt, and God is not discouraged when we have trouble believing; nor should we be.
Second, recognize that there is no actual competition between faith and reason. Many analytical thinkers are faithful Christians, and vice versa (the same is true of many if not all religious groups, but I am restricting my responses to the Christian situation). As Christians we learn by study and by faith. God has given us our minds, and expects us to use our reason (e.g., Isa. 1:18). So the first thing is to put aside any false notions that either faith should supersede reason, or that reason is superior to faith. Both are essential components of human experience, character and intellect; both are to be relied upon and work together to help us obtain clearer knowledge of truth.
Third, keep in mind that God is the source of all things, of all truth. He is the maker of heaven and earth, and of you and me (including our minds). He is not just the source of a church or a creed, or a set of religious rituals and traditions. (He is above and beyond all that, and is so much more than any single creed can capture.) So, what are we studying when we study math, science, psychology or engineering? We are studying God. We are studying his works and his ways. We are getting to know him better. So, if the teachings of our religion and the conclusions of our analyses do not agree, well this might mean that only one of them is right, but whichever of them it is, it is not just true, it is God’s truth. God doesn’t disappear from the equation just because the truth we discover is found out by logic rather than by liturgy, so to speak.
Fourth, recognize that reason or logic is not an infallible guide to the truth. Sometimes we assume that because we have analyzed something “correctly”, the conclusions we have reached must be true in some permanent sense. This is not correct thinking. Logical analysis does not discover truth, per se. Good logical analysis takes us from point A to point B, intellectually speaking, in a coherent and reliable way, avoiding contradictions and fallacies; but the truth, in the factual sense, of its conclusions depends greatly on the truth of its starting points, particularly its underlying axioms, as well as the accuracy of our observations. For example, this is a good logical syllogism:
All dogs have three tails. Fido is a dog. Therefore, Fido has three tails.
In fact, however, dogs don’t have three tails, and Fido doesn’t either. Though the logic is sound, in this case both the starting point and the conclusion are wrong. Now, in this case, it would be easy for us to know that something is wrong, because we can see Fido, and we can count the number of tails Fido has (i.e., one). But the logic itself does not tell us which error was made: is it that Fido is not actually a dog? Or is our starting point – that dogs have three tails – wrong? Again, logic alone does not tell us this. There are a lot of directions to go from even that silly example, but the only point I want to illustrate here is that an appeal to the strength of logical analysis alone as evidence of truth is, ultimately, intellectually (and logically, and practically) flawed.
This is as true, by the way, in Sunday School as it is in the science lab. A great deal of what we teach in church is also determined by analyses based on our best understanding of the scriptures. So what we teach or learn there can also be wrong, for the same reasons that our analyses in a science lab or a logic class can mislead us.
So, this brings me to a fifth consideration, on which I will conclude this reply: Anytime you are uncertain, ask God. See James 1: 5-6. I promise you that God answers these kinds of sincere prayers. I know, because he has answered mine.
Answers might not always come to us immediately, or in some astonishing revelatory way. They might. God might speak to your mind, direct you to a scripture or other source of understanding, or use some other means to answer you. But, more typically (or even in conjunction with that), God expects us to put some effort into the process, to use our minds, and to continue our studies; there are many answers that will be discovered by our analyses, with which he will often help by providing some nudging guidance in the right directions. And know that even if he does not immediately answer your burning questions, he can and will send his Spirit to assure you he is listening, and that the time for answers will come.
Ultimately, Linda, you should never feel that you cannot maintain your faith in the face of uncertainty. I do not mean putting on blinkers and ignoring intellectual challenges. I mean simply trusting that God, who is there and who loves you, will listen to, lead and answer you.
Question 3: How can we experience genuine brotherhood with those whose cultural identity is very different from our own? Can we do that and preserve our identity?
Answer: Human cultures can be lovely and enriching, but they are neither our ultimate beginning nor our ultimate destiny. When we accept Jesus Christ, we become his people, even his children. Our heritage and blessings flow from him, and we are unified by our faith in him. See Galatians 3:28.
Despite this, there is nothing wrong with loving and enjoying your own cultural heritage, whatever it might be. In fact, rich blessings are offered to those who honour their parents (this is one of the Ten Commandments), which can include honouring the loving, faithful, enriching traditions that have been passed down to us. Cultural traditions can ground us and give us direction. However, this is true for all people, of all cultures, so we should not let this cause us to become either competitive or defensive about our traditions in relation to those of others.
A couple of thoughts about this.
First, we should never make the mistake of confusing our culture with Christianity, even if Christianity is traditionally a part of that culture. Whether that is a risk or not, as we learn and develop traits of genuine humility, charity, brotherly kindness, and all the other virtues that Jesus exemplifies, teaches and inspires, we should find that our primary identity – that of Christian – overwhelms and consumes our other sources of identity, including cultural heritage; and if there is a conflict between our cultural tradition and the teachings of Jesus Christ, we should be willing to accept that it is our culture (or our practice of it) that should change.
Second, we should never presume that our love and enjoyment of our own culture means that we cannot appreciate and enjoy the qualities of another. Kirster Stendahl, a former bishop of the Church of Sweden, used the principle of “holy envy” to describe the deep appreciation we can have for the traditions of people whose faiths are different from our own, suggesting that each tradition has something from which the others can learn. This is also true of culture generally – of traditions relating to food and clothing, politics and education, health practices, family structures and activities, and so on. We can learn, and borrow, from one another, and we can celebrate one another’s different ways of doing things. Differences in culture should never be allowed to be stumbling blocks that prevent us from finding unity in Christ; instead, they are opportunities to rejoice in the diversity of God’s creation, including his creations of human ingenuity and invention.
Principles like these merely put into practice certain teachings of Jesus Christ, including that we should love one another and not set ourselves up as others’ judges. If we seek to love others as God does, we will begin to see past cultural attributes and into their hearts, and the bases for competition and defensiveness will disappear.
Question 4: In Matth 5:17-18 Jesus himself explicitly declares his adherence with the Law of Moses i.e. Torah. In Romans 4:10 st. Paul explicitly declares the termination of validity of Law of Moses i.e. Torah. So St. Paul contradicts Jesus directly. How do you reconcile? By Amirul Haque
Answer: Hi Amirul. Thank you for a question that points to some interesting theological issues, and probably one that I cannot (and don’t) answer satisfactorily.
First, let me refer you to N. T. Wright’s book, Paul, in which he shows very ably how Paul taught that Jesus and his gospel continue rather than contradict the teachings of the Jewish Bible and mission or calling of the Jewish people.
Having said that, though, I do not believe there is a contradiction between Romans 4 and Matthew 5. I will take a very simple approach to explaining this: in the case of the verses you cite, the answer is likely, simply, a matter of chronology.
In the verses you reference in Matthew, while it is fair to note that Jesus is explicitly declaring adherence to the Law of Moses, he is also stating that he will fulfill that law, and that the law will not pass away until it is fulfilled; or, in other words, it will (or, at least, may) pass away upon being fulfilled… which, as noted, Jesus said he came to do. So, if Jesus fulfilled it, it has (at least potentially) passed away, no? It would be fair to take the position, then, that the necessity of adherence to it therefore only lasted until he fulfilled it, when it passed away, which, chronologically speaking, happened before Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans. So, at the time that Paul wrote, in Romans chapter 4, that the necessity for circumcision was done away, he was right, right?
Now, it is possible to consider at great length the many details of the law and testimonies of Moses and the Prophets of what Christians call the Old Testament period, and their applicability today. It is complex and important to consider the ways in which Christ fulfilled the old law, and the old covenant, and established a new and everlasting covenant through his atoning sacrifice. But, in answer to your question specifically (and given that all those other considerations are well above my pay grade, so to speak), there is no contradiction between Matthew 5 and Romans 4, because the former was before and the latter was after Christ’s fulfillment of the law (as the former actually implicitly explains).
Question 5: What’s your viewpoint on the theory that Prophet Muhammad is mentioned in the bible? By Bill
Answer: Hi Bill. This is not a theory I know much about; however, prompted by your inquiry, I looked up some of the references some Muslims have used to suggest that Muhammad (pbuh) is prophesied about in the Bible. I do not believe any of those suggestions. Each of the prophecies referenced is either, I believe, clearly a prophecy about Jesus Christ, or has some other application that is neither clearly nor specifically related to Muhammad (pbuh). In a number of cases, it appears that references are strained in order to apply them to Muhammad (pbuh). I can appreciate that Muslims would like to draw connections between particularly the Jewish Bible and the mission of Muhammad (pbuh), but I do not believe those connections (at least, those which I have now reviewed) are accurate.
Question 6: Secular laws have trumped religious social values in Canada, e.g. homosexual, abortion rights. What can people of all faiths do to change this reality?
Answer: This is in some ways simple, and in some ways complex, and it can depend on what specific things you think ought to change (I note your two examples), and why. So I will give you what seems to be a very generic answer, but which I think is key: Get involved.
We cannot force others to believe, accept or adopt our points of view, but we can seek to share, influence and persuade them. We can ensure that our voices are heard in public dialogue and debate. We can write and speak to our City Councillors, MPP’s, MP’s, Senators and others who have positions of power, authority and influence. We can write letters to the editor. We can make and/or share social media pages and memes. We can create groups and associations of like-minded people who can work together on projects and events. In short, we can do whatever is within our power, within the range of what is legal and morally right to do, to ensure the voice of faith is heard and not ignored. (Occasionally, there may be times when civil disobedience is also appropriate, but I believe Christians should keep in mind the injunction to be peacemakers and be carefully measured in determining the extent to which such activism should go, and always stop short of what they can reasonably foresee will cause actual – physical or psychological – harm to others.)
In the end, as Christians, we should preach the Christian gospel, not as it pertains to politics, but to personal salvation. It is my belief that Christ works best from the inside out, transforming individuals’ hearts, who then go on to help transform their society. In seeking to share the gospel, I think we should remember St. Francis’ great advice, that we should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ always, even with words if necessary; or, in other words, example speaks volumes more than words. Then, as we share the loving truth of God’s grace in Jesus Christ in love, in ways that help others to willingly and freely accept him into their own lives, bringing them the personal peace and grace that only he provides, and then help to nurture and support them as they seek to live the “narrow way”, we may do more good than any number of letters, articles and protests will ever accomplish.
Question 7: As a scientist, how do we respect humanity while incorporating ideas like genetic modifications? By Frank T Asheri
Answer: Thank you, Frank. In our day and age, this kind of question is highly relevant as we seek to live lives as followers of Christ confronting issues that the scriptures written thousands of years ago do not explicitly appear to address. To start, let me note that as your question is somewhat general, to give it a thorough response would require an encyclopedic treatise, which I am not qualified to do. For example, take the term “genetic modification” alone. Do you mean gene therapy, designed to help cure a disease, or do you mean modifications designed to select a made-to-order type of human being? In the former case, humans are seeking to enhance basic well-being, and in the latter it might be said we are trying to play God. Each application of the science gives rise to different moral and spiritual considerations, and each may be answered in very different ways.
Further, I am not a scientist, and I am quite sure that if I tried to give you are really comprehensive answer that relies on scientific knowledge, I would mess that up. So, instead, what I will do is suggest a few readings.
First, I think that you should read some of the considered views on science and bioethics that have been given (by people better qualified than me) from Christian perspectives. In giving these references I am not saying that I have read or would necessarily support every statement or perspective contained within them, but amongst the most notable resources will be declarations of the Catholic Church, such as “The Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions”. Such statements by the Catholic Church are generally very carefully constructed statements of belief or direction that build up intelligently from first principles based upon scriptures. Some non-Catholic Christian sources include the writings of Allen Verhey of Duke Divinity School, or publications by Trinity International University’s Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. I am sure you can find many other sources like these.
Second, I think it would benefit you to study the lives of Christian scientists. A prominent scientist from my own tradition is Henry Eyring, an award winning theoretical chemist who remained faithful and devout throughout his life. You can find out more about him from Wikipedia page, where there is also a reference to his biography in which the dynamic balance of faith and science in his life is examined. I am sure you can also find similar resources about other faithful scientists.
I point you in this direction, because the fact is that neither I nor any other person will necessarily have all the answers you will need as a scientist to ensure you follow the ethical path of Jesus Christ. Critical to you doing so will be not only the continual examination of the choices before you from the perspective of the gospel and its fundamental principles, such as is exemplified in “The Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions” referenced above, but, and at least just as importantly, like Henry Eyring, having your life personally and spiritually centred upon Jesus Christ. Learning from such examples might be an important component of your personal preparation to handle difficult ethical questions.
In this regard, you also might remember the point I made toward the end of my talk at the WRC 2018: That ultimately it is not we who live, but Christ who lives through us. If you will centre your life on Christ, seeking to have faith in and follow him in every aspect of life, and give your will to him, I believe you will begin to have more deeply embedded in your heart and mind the principles, ideas and doctrines, and, more importantly, the Spirit, to guide you in your analysis and decision making where matters of such important ethical concerns are involved.
Question 8: How would you explain about the differences among people (i.e. some poor, some rich, some beautiful some ugly) in regard of God as the creator?
Answer: This is an interesting question and causes me to question the underlying motivation or concern. Do you believe that differences are inherently wrong or unfair, or that they call into question God’s role as creator?
There does not appear to be any sound version of Christian doctrine that purports that all people were intended to possess (either from birth or by effort) the same qualities or characteristics as all others. Some are tall, some are short; some are physically attractive in the general sense we call “beautiful”, and others are less so; some are smarter than others; some are stronger; some are born into wealth, or through their efforts gain it, while others experience perpetual poverty; some are sickly, and others have great health; and so on, and so on. These are simply facts of the world in which we live.
What we can learn from them includes this point: if people are made in God’s image (as the Bible says), then God’s image has nothing to do with those things. It would seem that being like God is not about how many fingers or toes we have, or whether we are rich or poor, weak or strong, beautiful or plain, etc. We can look to deeper aspects of character to find the ways in which we are like our Heavenly Father.
Other things that we learn come to our minds as we learn other principles from the scriptures. One of these principles is that included in our individual characteristics and qualities are individual gifts that we can make use of in serving others. So, the Apostle Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
In addition, just as some of our differences are gifts we give to the service of others, there is also the other side of that coin, that some of our differences which are considered weaknesses or deficiencies create opportunities for us to be the recipients of such service. So, Jesus tells Peter, “when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.” He doesn’t condemn the weak, but provides someone with strength to serve them.
God knows that in this damaged world there will always be the poor, the suffering, the sorrowing and the weak. This is not contrary to his plan; nor does he lack compassion for those in need. He loves each of his children, whoever and whatever they are. And he calls upon us to love, serve, uplift and save one another, using whatever capacities we have to give.
The following blog entries might be of interest in this regard:
Question 9: If God speaks today and one can hear him, any hearing experience?
Answer: Yes. In my own experience, I was once praying fervently for a friend who was ill. This was early in her illness, and not only was her actual affliction unknown at the time, but she was also pregnant. I was anxious that she would become healthy, so that she and her child would be well. After making my tearful request, I heard a voice recite a scripture that asserts that life and death are in God’s hands, and that therefore not all for whom we seek a blessing of healing will be saved if it is the time appointed for them to die. I was disheartened, but continued to pray against this insightful word in case there was some chance this effort could change things; nevertheless, the young woman did pass away several weeks later. It was with some joy, though, that her son was able to be delivered and survived.
I have two friends who have told me different variations of hearing a voice speak to them in relation to coming to believe in Jesus Christ. One of them is today a devout Catholic who, when a young adult, was contemplating truth and faith after having studied philosophy and rejected religion, and heard a voice say to him that Christianity is true. This affected him much like the voice that spoke to St. Augustine, and he remains faithful to this day. The other friend’s experience (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was slightly more humorous. He says that as he was waffling about whether or not to commit his life to Christ, he heard a voice whisper in his ear, “Don’t be stupid; get baptized.”
But keep in mind that God speaks in various ways, and most often his communication is only spiritual and not also audible. In fact, in each of the above mentioned cases, who knows if there was really an audible sound, or just a voice that seemed to be audible? It has seemed audible to me in two of my own experiences, including the one mentioned above, but I also know that senses can be mistaken. However, there are many, many people who can bear witness of God speaking to their hearts and minds, providing insight, encouragement, revelation and inspiration. Sometimes the influence is so subtle we are barely prompted to consider the source, but there are other cases in which the impression seems so clearly “from elsewhere”, or the outcome is so perfectly orchestrated beyond our own capacities to have caused, that the direction we have received seems more certain to have been divine.
Question 10: What is the nature of Homo sapiens? From Francis Tuntu Asheri
Answer: Francis, I think you win the prize for asking the most general question of all. J
By way of answer, let me tell you in simple terms what I believe: I believe that humans are the children of God, in so far as, although our physical bodies are his creation, our spirits are literally his offspring; we carry the nature and spark of divinity within us, and have the genuine potential to become like him. I believe this is true of every person, of every race and creed. This means, in part, that we are being most fully human when we are being most like our Heavenly Father. I believe we are most fully capable of accomplishing this when we allow Jesus Christ, through his enabling atoning grace, to cleanse us of the effects of the weaknesses of the flesh that lead to sins and selfishness, and to take the lead in our lives.
Question 11: Can you please enlighten us on the originality of the bible in relation to what was actually revealed? By Hafiz Aziz
Answer: Thank you for this question, Hafiz, though I must admit the complete answer is more complex and comprehensive than I can give you here. Let me offer just the following thoughts.
The Bible is an amalgam of books, an anthology (the word “Bible” comes from the Greek word meaning “books”). For most, if not all, of these books, we have no original versions. Some may be transcriptions of oral traditions; some are compilations of other writings. All of them are selections from amongst an array of texts, some others of which might have been candidates to be treated as sacred, but for one reason or another were not.
While some Christians do doubt the perfect accuracy of the Biblical texts because of those kinds of things, most Christians believe that, despite them, the books of the Bible are essentially accurate at least in so far as they convey the essential and necessary truths of the Gospel. We believe the words of the Apostle Paul that, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
So, whether or not there could be other sacred texts, and whether or not the books preserved in the Bible are perfect copies of the originals, or perfect expressions of the original stories, and even whether or not they have been translated (and retranslated) correctly, as Christians we treat these books as sacred. We look to them for understanding, inspiration, and knowledge of God’s will. And if we have doubts regarding the veracity of the original revelations on which they are based, we have access to the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17) for confirmation of at least the truth of what they teach us (see also John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14).
Question 12: Although our understanding of God may differ, are we all looked after and received by the same God?
Answer: Yes. (Thanks for the easiest question yet.J )
Question 13: [Twitter Question] What method is used to record how many Christians are in the world, I hear each is counted at their birth but does it include those who leave the faith afterwards too? By Omar Khan
Answer: That’s an interesting question, Omar, and one that a statistician is more likely to answer better than I can. For my part, I just take the figures most consistently stated in almanacs (or online J) at face value. I presume them to be roughly accurate, but I do not expect them to be exactly perfect. In any event, there are likely various methodologies and practices that account for the figures for all faiths.
For example, I recall being advised that some Christian churches only count people as members while they attend regularly. Some others – probably those that are more centralized in their organization – may count people as members until they expressly seek to be removed from the records of the church. As you suggest, some also might count people as members from birth, while others might not count a person as a member until baptism and/or confirmation. And these comments only relate to the ways that churches count membership. Many national statistics may be based on other records, such as voluntary responses to censuses.
If the question is one you would like to study, I suggest looking into the various references on this Wikipedia page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_religious_populations, which might provide a good sense of how these figures are arrived at.
Question 14: [Twitter Question] Mr. Michael Clifton, what are your comments on the declining Christian population and the increase of those with atheistic beliefs? By Salmaan Khan
Answer: Hi Salmaan. This question is very interesting, and there could be various answers. However, while it is true that church attendance and stated faith in Christianity have been declining steadily – according to a 2015 Pew Research Centre report, the number of Christians is projected to will increase but remain basically stagnant as a percentage of the world population – the Pew Research Centre also projects that atheism is also set for a decline (see this report).
Nevertheless, I believe both the decrease in Christian faith and an increase in atheism have related causes: a decline in Christian faithfulness.
Many causes might be cited, but I would suggest that for decades, if not centuries, many Christians and their churches and nations have failed to live up to the principles of Christianity. From historical issues like colonialism, racism, and slavery, to contemporary problems such as sexual abuse amongst factions of priests, and the more individualized issues of increasing dishonesty, infidelity and immorality, many Christians, their churches and countries have not only failed to set examples that attract faith, but have set examples that drive them away.
Still, I do not believe this situation is either permanent or fatal to the Christian faith. It might even already be reversing, as Christians seem to be awakening to their moral and spiritual callings, and their churches seek to repair past errors and crimes. However, ultimately, the truth of Christianity is not determined by how many faithful Christians there are, but by how faithful Christ is. Despite the failings of Christians, Christ himself remains true, and his promises are sure. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,” he said (Matt. 24:35). Based on my experience, there is no reason to doubt him.