Myodicy, Issue 16, September 2002

Just Because

by Theodore Plantinga

In my many years in academia, I have often served as the secretary of this or that committee or task force or council. One is obliged to take one's turn at that sort of thing, I suppose. But in my case there is an additional stated reason for so often sticking me with the job of secretary: I am told that the minutes I have written in the past have proven accurate. It is almost as though I am being punished for good behavior. (Of course those who flatter me, better practitioners of creative incompetence than I am, are hoping to avoid the chore themselves.) Since the task is not difficult for me, I usually oblige, after a few ritual complaints.

The vote of confidence I am given also emboldens me to simplify the minutes somewhat. Life as actually lived is generally messier than life as we would like to remember it; hence written history smoothes out some of the bumps. So, too, with the modest minutes of an obscure committee meeting at Redeemer University College.

I take certain liberties, then. Although the notes I scribble during the meeting record events and decisions and discussions in the chronological order in which they occurred, the order in which I present them in my minutes may violate chronological sequence at some point. I may choose to group similar items of business together. Or I judge that a latter item bears some relation to an earlier item and should be recorded right after my words about the earlier item. No one seems to notice.

At the beginning of the current academic year, I was prevailed upon to serve as secretary again and was told that my minutes are always so accurate, and so forth .... What this vote of confidence tells me is that my rearrangement of things in the past has not occasioned question, and so I feel free to continue the practice. (Now that I am admitting it publicly, I may well run into trouble when my next set of minutes is considered at the beginning of a meeting.)

I should hasten to add that I make no statement in my minutes that my report of the meeting is strictly chronological. I list numbered items of business. One might infer that I am following strict chronological order, but I have given no such promise or guarantee.

I mention my practice in the writing of minutes by way of prelude to some comments I wish to make on a deeper issue in philosophy of history, namely, to what extent the stories we tell about our own lives should be understood as chronological, as reflecting the events that actually happened in the order in which they happened. I am convinced that our narratives often violate narrative sequence; even without thinking about what we are doing, we sometimes substitute reasons or justifications (non-temporal in their order of presentation) for narrative episodes or factors (temporal).

This is a general problem in philosophy of history, and I have explored it to some extent in my book How Memory Shapes Narratives: A Philosophical Essay on Redeeming the Past. [NOTE 1]. I do not propose to go over the same ground here; instead I will comment on two developments in my own life as illustrating the general difficulty of which I spoke in the book. Both these developments took place since the book was written. The first is my adoption of vegetarianism; the second is my decision to affiliate with an Anglican church.

"So why are you a vegetarian?" I am sometimes asked. Or the question may be: "How did you become a vegetarian?" When I respond to questions of this sort, I need to make a decision. I could take the question as meaning: why be a vegetarian? In that case, my answer would include an implicit recommendation to my interlocutor to become a vegetarian as well. Or I could take it as a lesser question: when did you become a vegetarian, and under what circumstances?

I generally prefer and choose to answer in terms of the former option. There are at least two reasons for this preference. First, since I am a philosopher, I like constructing arguments and defending a position. I enjoy being challenged -- and also kidded -- about my vegetarian credo and am quick to rise to the occasion when someone tells me that I am sure to be deficient in protein or some essential nutrient. But the second reason also merits consideration: the actual story of my turning vegetarian is modest and not terribly interesting. And since I like being thought of as an interesting fellow, I usually launch into a spirited defense of vegetarianism, partly with tongue in cheek. If my interlocutor is one of my students who has heard me lecture on Jainism and its extremely strict form of vegetarianism, I may even be chided for not being strict enough, for committing the sin of ahimsa, even if on a lesser scale than the non-vegetarians whom I regularly brand "carnivores."

Sometimes I am impatient with the vegetarian debate and do not feel inclined to tell my personal story in relation to meat. On those occasions I feel inclined to answer: "Just because," or some slightly wordier version of the same sentiment. This phrase seems to me to give robust expression to our right to make our own decision in these matters; it also serves to invite our conversation partner to mind his own business.

But today, as I write this essay, I'm not in a "Just because" mood. And so I will tell the brief story of how I got to be a vegetarian. It happened at the beginning of 1997. If I were unhappy about this change in my life, I could complain, with Adam of old, "The woman thou gavest me ...." But this change in my life was an occasion when I had reason to be very pleased with the helpmeet, a daughter of Eve, no less, whom God had provided for me.

Mary, my wife, suffered almost all of her life from epilepsy, and had to take strong anti-convulsant medications every day to keep the epileptic seizures at bay. The medications had regrettable side-effects, which she hated. In late 1996 she attended a talk at McMaster University at which the speaker made a strong case for vegetarianism, laying out the usual range of arguments. Since I, from time to time, encouraged Mary to try something new in terms of dealing with her epilepsy, she finally thought she would stop eating meat for a while to see whether that would make any difference. She did not announce to me that this was her intent: I wasn't even around when it happened. Without any fanfare, she stopped eating meat when she was away from home, in Michigan, visiting her parents for about a week. When she got back, she told me what she had done. It was fine with me, especially when I heard that she had felt better during that week without meat.

Now, I should add that Mary had always been a meat-lover, whereas I had been lukewarm toward meat. I liked hamburger and chicken; most of the other forms of meat that came my way had relatively little appeal. Thus I could probably have been argued into vegetarianism long before. But since I was married to a woman who liked meat, and so it didn't happen. Now my wife had stopped eating meat, and was doing better health-wise as a result. This pattern continued for a few weeks: Mary still cooked meat for me, but she did not eat any herself. Finally, a month after Mary had stopped eating the stuff, I thought I would give it a week's trial. Before the week was up, I was sold on the idea, and I haven't touched meat since -- except in my dreams. (I occasionally have a bad dream about "falling off the wagon," so to speak, not by indulging in booze but by eating meat; then I awake to discover that my vegetarian purity is intact, and I am greatly relieved.)

After turning vegetarian, I began reading more about the reasons for staying away from meat. The more I read, the more convinced I became. The reasons in the books became my reasons as well, and I proceeded to pass them on to others who asked me why I abstained from meat. In the process, I sometimes created the impression that I had made a study of the whole business, assembled the reasons for avoiding meat, decided they were sound, and then stopped eating meat -- all of which would have been a rationalistic procedure worthy of a philosopher. But that's not the way it happened at all. Nevertheless, I sometimes left people imagining that it had happened in some such way, partly because people seem eager to believe such a thing.

For both the hearer and the teller in the case of such a tale, there is a desire for orderliness in narrative. To line up the reasons for being vegetarian and then to assume that they actually caused or led a given person to become vegetarian is a typical mistake in terms of how we conceive of personal history. We are strongly inclined to attribute more order and sense and rationality to it than it actually possesses. In the process we confuse reason (why be vegetarian?) with motive (what factors or causes led you to become vegetarian?). And we make ourselves out to be great deliberators, whereas the truth is that we are often rather impulsive in such matters.

The story of my reception into the Anglican communion involves a much more complicated set of circumstances than the story behind my decision to give vegetarianism a try. The switch to Anglicanism involves a strong disagreement about Christian teaching. I do not propose to tell that story here -- not even in abbreviated form. Suffice it to say that at a certain point in my life I began attending the local Anglican church. I had been born into a Dutch Reformed communion in the Netherlands (where I spent the first four years of my life) and had spent most of my subsequent life worshipping among the Christian Reformed in North America. I was in general agreement with Christian Reformed doctrinal emphases, but was long mildly discontented with liturgy -- or perhaps the lack thereof -- in most Christian Reformed settings. The fact that chapel services at Redeemer University College, where I had long taught, also tended strongly in the low-church direction, contributed to my hunger for a stronger liturgical emphasis. In any event, when it came time for me to consider a new church home, I headed straight for the local Anglican church and began worshipping there on a weekly basis.

The question of how and when I became a member of the Anglican communion -- rather than just a visitor -- is complicated by Anglican practices. Anglicans still operate by what we might call a parish system, according to which whoever lives within the parish boundaries and attends services regularly and receives communion and supports the church financially is considered a member -- regardless of whether he has asked to join or not, even if he is still a member, formally speaking, of some other church, as I still was. Thus, at a certain point I became aware that I was considered a member of St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, which was in walking distance from my home. I enjoyed the walk to and from church, and this was also a factor in my decision to worship at St. James, even though I literally walked by a United Church, a Presbyterian Church and a Roman Catholic Church to get to St. James. (Those three, along with the Anglicans, are generally regarded as the big four denominations in Canada.) In that respect, too, I felt that I was consciously choosing St. James.

Eventually I went through a membership induction process and ceremony, which included what Reformed people would call a public profession of faith in the context of a worship service. But in effect I had earlier become a member without quite realizing that I had done so. For some time I could be characterized as a Christian Reformed person who worships from time to time in an Anglican church, and I am now an Anglican person who worships from time to time in a Christian Reformed church. Just for the record, I also worship in Presbyterian and Baptist churches.

The point of my recitation about Anglicanism is again to consider how reasons tend to supplant motives and causes in the stories we tell about ourselves. I get asked, from time to time: "So, how come you're an Anglican now?" Sometimes I tell part of the story of the doctrinal disagreement (and the accompanying hard feeling) that I am withholding in this small essay. But my usual response is in terms of reasons. In other words, I explain why it makes sense for someone of my convictions and outlook to worship among the Anglicans and to join them. Perhaps I can be said to engage in a modest bit of evangelizing when I do so. I tell people: "Try it -- you might like it." Some do.

My reasons for being and remaining Anglican were crystallized for me some time ago when I was visiting the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto. There I was browsing in books about Anglicanism when I came upon a four-word rationale for being Anglican. It struck me with some force as just what I had been thinking. I did not buy the book and therefore cannot pass on the reference. But the four words have been in my mind ever since.

The first characteristic the author prized in Anglicanism was reason. In other words, among the Anglicans it is possible to reason about religious disagreements. This one struck home for me because I had run into fundamentalism in the church I had long attended: the authorities in the local church (not the denomination, I should hasten to add, for I have no quarrel with the denomination's stand on the issue at the heart of the controversy) decided what Christian teaching was, simply equated it with what the Bible taught, and then enforced it without any willingness to work out disagreements through discussion. I had wanted to talk things over, but this couldn't be done.

The second characteristic, closely related to the first, is moderation. When there are differences in teaching and emphasis, or differences in our understanding of the Bible's message, Anglicans do not allow their passions to carry them away into intemperate behavior. Now, such moderation was exactly what had been lacking in the church where I ran into difficulty. I'm a moderate fellow myself and am always willing to talk further where there is a disagreement concerning Christian teaching, and so I instinctively felt at home with the low-key, moderate tone of Anglican church life.

The third characteristic was liturgy. This, of course, is what Anglicans are well known for; like many another professor in a Protestant college, I had long been a closet Anglican and an admirer of the Anglican insistence on a stable and very carefully prepared and executed liturgy. When the English professors at Redeemer would organize one of their "Anglican chapels," I would always attend and thank them for it afterward. In particular, I appreciated the Anglican determination not to be influenced by the television world in terms of how worship services are conducted.

The fourth characteristic mentioned in the book I held in my hand was culture. Now, this is indeed a very general attribute of a church -- not exactly what theologians would call a church distinctive. Yet it seemed true of Anglicanism (Cardinal Newman might disagree), and especially of the congregation of which I had became a member. The pastor there was very well read and even loved philosophy and held a master's degree in the subject. The congregation included professors and artists. Art was regularly displayed in the church. A quiet good taste was evident in the church's activities. One did not have occasion to cringe at what was said, or how it was said. The clergy did not butcher the Queen's English.

In any event, I adopted the four characteristics as my own explanation as to why one should worship among the Anglicans -- or more specifically, why I feel at home there. I grant readily that the characteristics I have mentioned here are also to be found in some measure in various other churches, and I might well feel at home in another communion at some point, although I suspect that it would be very hard to find another Protestant communion that can match the Anglican commitment to an historic liturgy. And so, when I am asked why I am an Anglican, or how I came to be one (because of my Frisian surname, I am suspected of being Dutch Reformed in origin), I usually respond with the four characteristics enumerated above.

Will I gain more clarity on these matters and get a better sense of what happened in my life in that period when I made a gradual switch from Christian Reformed church membership to Anglican church membership? I rather doubt it. In fact, these things tend to become murkier as the years go by. I don't suppose I will ever write a substantial autobiography along the lines of the one written by James Conant, an American of the previous century who distinguished himself in a number of separate fields of endeavor. Conant comments tellingly on the issue I have been discussing here, and writes:

Why did I retire from the presidency of Harvard at the age of sixty in order to become High Commissioner in Germany? Or why, after four years in Germany, did I choose to make a study of the American comprehensive high schools? Frankly, I am always skeptical of writers who attempt to answer such personal questions. The answers provided seem to be rationalizations after the event. They may or may not provide entertaining reading, but in the light of modern psychology they can only be regarded as a form of fiction. Evidence of this fact is my recollection of the changing ways I have viewed my decision to accept the presidency of Harvard in 1933. The explanation I then had in mind was not the same as I would have offered, say, in 1953, and today I would describe my motives in still a different fashion. [NOTE 2]

Perhaps we need to be thoroughly hermeneutical about such matters and admit that whereas no one really knows these things, all are welcome to comment and offer interpretations. It's a little like the business of whether one's thinking has changed, and, if so, how much, and why. I get asked this sort of thing about myself every now and then. I usually answer that I am not the privileged interpreter of my own thought and writings. In that same vein, I am not the privileged interpreter of my own life.

Yet I do enjoy the privilege of holding a questioner at bay by declining to enter a conversation about the how and the why. And so, on some occasions when I am too weary to get into the tangled business of why I am an Anglican or a vegetarian, I take the easy way out and say: "Just because." So there. [END]


Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Two Modes of Thought, (New York: Trident Press, 1964), pp. xxv-xxvi]

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