Q&A with James Houston

James HoustonJames Houston — Regent College founder, Oxford professor, and colleague of C.S. Lewis, answers questions applicable to today’s changing landscape — bringing attention and wisdom to relevant issues in this culture and time.

What are some of the hurdles young people face today that you never had?

One of the things we are facing today is that young people have multiple choices, that I never had in my youth. The exacerbation of choice now makes a kind of paralysis of choice in our society because there are so many opportunities, so many directions that one can go in.

How can someone deal with all these choices?

The way to overcome that is to not take choice too seriously! People today find it deadly serious to decide what career track to follow and they don’t realize that the reason the choice is so serious to them is because it seems to identify them so much with a professional identity rather than a relational one.

What do you mean when you talk about a self- achieved identity?

When you have an identity in what you do rather than in all the range of your relational life, you end up being a depleted self. Especially when identity is assumed to be something that is self achieved, it ends up being depleted and shallow.

Whereas, if you are living with a much more robust sense of the self, that is given to you by relationships with others, then of course you have a much stronger sense of self. And in that respect, you can be therefore much more generous in your attitude towards other people. You are all around more relational.

You talk quite a bit about personhood, making a distinction between being personal and being individual. Please explain.

Fundamentally God has created us to be relational beings. You could say that there’s a huge difference between being an individual and being person. The person is, in a sense, one who is living in the theological understanding of personhood.

Personhood is ultimately to be relational as God is relational, whereas the individual is a self-contained and is therefore very limited in relational life. This applies to students just as well as people older in life. Clearly, if we can start earlier in life with an understanding of the personal dimension over the individualistic dimension, this will bear fruit now and later in life as well.

Do we decide what to do or does God?

One has to recognize that a lot of our life is much more guided by God through circumstances than through hearing some inner voice saying this is the way to go. It’s much more likely that we knock on doors and we find some doors shut and others open. That may be God using circumstances, as the sovereign of all time and circumstances.

You were acquainted with C.S. Lewis while at Oxford. What was that like?

When I was a young graduate and teacher at Oxford I was influenced by my encounter with C.S. Lewis. The thing that impressed me most about him was that he was as intelligent in his faith — in communicating it — as he was as a professional in literature.

Can you comment on Christians in professional circles expressing their faith, in this day and age?

I’ve often felt that what makes the witness of Christians incredible is when their expression of faith is not commensurate with their professional skills. The result is that their faith is ‘kindergarten’ compared with the way they’ve graduated in other areas of their life. That’s why I’ve felt there is a tremendous need to equip Christians who are intelligent to be intelligent in their faith. In the western world, the credibility of faith is being lost simply because there is a huge disparity between their general education and their faith.

How has the current burst of technology affected our ability to be personal?

The impact of technology is to give pseudo-relational impressions — that I am very friendly and very personal when I’m simply texting or joining some kind of computer club that brings us all together — like Facebook.

Are you on Facebook?

I’m not; I’ve deliberately refused to get involved! If I email, I write as though I’m writing a letter, to a person.

How does someone deal with dark times and valleys, with struggles for purpose or direction?

One thing I’ve always found helpful for when you are going through dark inner struggles that you find very threatening and challenging, is to try to identify it with the culture. If you understand some of the neurotic symptoms of the culture around you, you will understand why you are suffering the same kind of things within yourself.

When you see things more broadly in a cultural way, then you can understand that you can be sympathetic, as the prophets were, to their time.

What do you mean ‘as the prophets were’?

Jeremiah, for instance, knows [Israel's] in exile and he warns the people that it’s time to plant their vineyards and build their houses because they’ll be there for the long haul, as exiles. So, the very fact that you are not alone as an exile (in your struggle), but have fellow exiles as well, will give you some comfort. The problem that we tend to have is to take things so personally to ourselves that we forget we have companions in that struggle.

You talk a lot about lamenting before God. Can you explain this and its purpose for this generation?

Yes, I think it’s very important that today young people are able to disclose their inner doubts. A verse that will comfort them is 2 Corinthians 7:10, where Paul, to paraphrase what he’s saying, says that ‘the pain that is born of God (all the pain and the angst we have, that we can bring into the presence of God) is too significant ever to regret going through the experience’. The rest of that verse says ‘the pain that is of man (the self-encloser of the individualistic self), brings death’. In other words, we can’t cope on our own; we need the help of God. Some of the deepest pains we suffer, when we lament before God, turn out to be some of the most creative experiences we could imagine ever going through.

Can you explain the importance of Church history and how it is very much relevant for this generation of Christians?

The very nature of technology means that history becomes irrelevant. New techniques mean that we are always looking forward to something better. But humans have a memory; we have a history and a heritage. It’s my passion to say that we need all 2000 years of church history as well as the 1000 years plus of the Old Testament in order to enrich us to limp along as Christians in the 21st century.

How can past Christian culture help us understand today’s diverse Christian culture?

As never before, Christians need the communion of saints of the past to give them diversity and enrichment and sometimes judgement upon their own culture. How can we critique our culture prophetically unless we’ve got a perspective of previous cultures? For all these reasons, we need to take the history of faith seriously, because the very nature of Christianity is that it’s a historic faith. The reality of Abraham, or the reality of David, or the reality of Jesus Christ are historical events that are life changing and have transformed all of human history.

Do you have any advice for students?

We have to seek to have some balance. The advantage of being a student is that it’s a temporary position of limited time. We may make major sacrifices to concentrate and be successful in a way that is not necessarily going to be our way of life for the rest of our days. There is a difference between the pursuit of the professor and the pursuit of the student.

Advice for professors?

It’s very important for us to cultivate and not neglect our family life. At the end of the day, people that can be most enriching and joyful for us are our own family. And so, the pursuit of excellence has one great casualty to it. If I’m determined to make money, or I’m determined to make my own academic reputation, or I’m determined to single out one objective, that of course narrows the field of activities that I do. The end result of that can be very impoverishing. You can talk about the ‘failure of success’.

– Interview by Al Mills

Living with unhealed illness

Read her husband’s testimony

The Kutney family
My name is Joy. People often say that I live up to it, although life has sobered me some and, unfortunately, I probably laugh less and carry more burdens than I used to.

I’m the wife of a pastor, the daughter of missionaries and mom to five children, two of whom have cleft lips and palates as well as Autism. They’re all precious gifts that circle us with love. Two years ago, after a year of debilitating weakness, aching muscles and cramps, my husband was diagnosed with Hypereosinophilic Syndrome (HES), a rare and poorly understood blood disorder. According to the medical journals, HES always ends badly.

My husband Ken and I met in Bible College, married, went to Regent College to do masters studies, and then right into full time ministry. We took over a church plant and ministered there for almost nine years. During that time we were very busy raising our kids. When Ken, started to experience symptoms he carried on pastoring but would take days to recover after each Sunday. As doctors tried to determine what was wrong with him, we went through one of the worst phases of a long-term illness without having the validation that comes from a diagnosis.

It was a year before we received his diagnosis. We were winded by the news and yet somehow relieved that we knew the next step. Ken hadn’t been able to work since the fall of 2004, but with this diagnosis he formally stepped down from the church. A colleague and I continued giving oversight until a new pastor was found.

We both love God, and want to serve Him, and we continue to pray for healing. We’re so thankful to be in a caring community. So many have rallied around us and prayed. God seems to be telling us to wait on Him and be still. Things have not improved, but still we pray.

Whirlwind of emotions and questions

I’ve gone through a whirlwind of emotions while petitioning God for healing. I can’t help wondering what I’m supposed to believe in, the miracle, or the Christ? There are many questions. . . I know God will do as He pleases, and I hope I’m good with that. Is it

I know He’s able, but why does He not comply with my request? Am I following Him for what I can get? Why does He allow such pain? Jesus told his followers, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:11) But He seems to be withholding this good gift. I can’t help but come to the inevitable conclusion that I am not capable of understanding. a cop-out to pray, “Not my will but yours”?

C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, ponders, Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow a square or round? Probably half the questions we ask half our great theological and metaphysical problems are like that.

Love God and my neighbour

So, I get on with life and seek to follow the two greatest commandments to love the Lord with all my heart and love my neighbour as myself (Mt 22:37-40). I can do that, even with my questions unanswered. I still take my petitions to Him because I know He likes me to. But when my focus is on loving God, just walking with Him on this strange journey, and not on the gift of healing, then I don’t feel so confused.

When we are depressed or in pain we often lack the ability to feel much of anything else. Nothing is very funny, or sad, or interesting. This becomes very serious when we cannot feel God’s warmth, or his presence. This isolation is unbearable. Jesus felt it when He cried out from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Although we can’t compare our pains with Christ’s, none the less we can feel utterly forsaken. We know feelings are not reliable and may not carry much wisdom, however we often let them shape our thinking. Illness often brings unpredictable symptoms such as fatigue, fear, anxiety, anger, stress, and depression. Although, statistics indicate that most of us will experience two or three chronic illnesses in our lives, when it actually happens, we can feel shocked and alone.

Mystery and yielding

Jesus warned us that in this life we will have troubles (John 16:33), so why are we so surprised when they come? Why do we take every trial as if it were a deviation from God’s will for us? We believe in and accept the mystery of how great and unfathomable God is, but we’re not okay with the mystery of pain, especially when it affects us.

If I could say anything to fellow believers who may have identified with aspects of my journey, my heartfelt admonition is to yield, not fight. Accept your lack of understanding. God is God, and the deeper you go, the more profound the mystery. We make God too small, because we make him in our own image. We expect Him to do the things *we* thought of, and question His character when he does not comply.

The shield of faith

When the fiery darts of the enemy fly, (feelings of despair, doubts about God’s word, temptations to sin…) put on the best defence: ‘the shield of faith’(Eph. 6:16). Trust in Him, not in what you asked Him to do. If we are to learn from Christ’s passion, then truly, ‘Thy will be done’ is the ultimate prayer.