Friday, February 22, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 2

The Academic Scene

In this chapter IG (the Asian in me has won out – I can’t call a lady 30 years my senior by her first name) very briefly traces the development of Western thought and how that has shaped the disciplines of theology and religious studies. In doing so she hopes to help us understand better why such discussion is undertaken in the first place, and the differing stances taken up by different Christians.

What is “religion”? Its origin lies in Latin, meaning “service rendered to the gods”, before taking on a Christian meaning in the European languages, referring primarily to the Christian God. Non-Christians only fell into 3 other categories: Jews, Muslims and heathen/pagans. However, as Westerners came into contact with various non-Christians, especially during the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries, they began to realise that “pagans” were not simply uncivilized barbarians but people who had their own ways of thinking and believing. In attempting to describe and make sense of all these new beliefs, they wrote in terms of what they knew already, that is, “religion”.

With Enlightenment philosophy taking a firmer grip of Western thought by the 19th century, it was inevitable that people began looking for a way to analyse “religion” and to come up with theories. Two influential strands in particular stand out, that of idealism, which finds its basis of the world outside the material realm, and positivism, which rejected all supernatural notions and privileged a scientific approach. Although at first glance, both seem opposed to each other, nevertheless both share assumptions that have shaped religious studies to this day:
  • Objectivity. Both wanted to explain the world in a way that applied to everyone of all cultures, places and history.
  • Science. Both saw reason as the primary way to investigate religion.
  • Essentialism. Both were looking for the “essence” of religion, that common ingredient which would explain all religious phenomena.
  • Evolution. Both maintained that humans were on an upward slope of progress. For some, that meant leaving religion behind as something “primitive”, for others, it meant an ever more sophisticated understanding of monotheism.
We can see all these influencing how religious studies departments are structured today as they are studied on human terms, for eg. sociology of religion, anthropology of religion etc. At the same time, scholars have seen some of the difficulties this has raised, including the difficulty of locating an “essence”, defining religion in general (should Satanists count? Why or why not?), and the recognition that none of us are presuppositionless. Today, postmodern thinking has also taken hold, and many people have no problem believing that there are different truths for different people.

IG then suggests what a Christian might make of all these:
1. we can be grateful that religious studies has contributed to dispelling ignorance and prejudice and recognising that we have a shared humanity.
2. although religion cannot be understood in purely human terms, nevertheless religions do have human aspects and religious studies helps us better understand these. We can see how faith affects society, for both good and bad.
3. By recognising the assumptions and bases of academic religious studies, we are therefore able to ask critical questions about it, and also think about Christianity for ourselves in light of what we know about God, that is, theologically.

All theology is done in a context. However, in the last 2 centuries, many theologians have been unable to approach the Bible as a revealed book, but only as a human one. They, however, wanted to retain the label “Christian” and chose to reinterpret many of the events recorded in the Bible in a new light.

European Christians traditionally thought of all non-Christian peoples as lost and therefore in need of the gospel. However, some Christians began seeing religion as purely human phenomena, and were also influenced by evolutionary ideas. There were “savages/barbarians” and “civilized” people, and the link was made that Western culture=Christian and therefore more civilized than all other cultures. Of course, a grasp of the biblical faith will help us see that humankind is not evolving upwards, nor are Christians morally superior, but in need of God’s grace. Yet we need to be aware that when we say “Jesus is the only way to heaven”, many will interpret this to mean “Christians are superior to others”.

IG now delineates for us how theologians have tried to understand other faiths, and proposes three widely-used categories: exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Not everyone will neatly fit into any of these categories, but they provide a helpful framework.

Exclusivism
Salvation through explicit faith in Christ alone.
God’s special revelation through Israel, Christ and the Bible only.
Christocentric – Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Spirit given through him.

Inclusivism
Salvation through Christ but not needing explicit faith in him.
There may be special revelation elsewhere (apart from the exclusivist view).
Theocentric – Christ is seen in Jesus, but not confined to him. The Holy Spirit might be at work everywhere.

Pluralist
Salvation available through all faiths.
Religion as differing human responses to the transcendent
Cosmic Christ. Universal spirit.

Also, the word “salvation” might sometimes be used in different ways by different people. Exclusivists and inclusivists both see Jesus as the final revelation from God. In general, IG sees pluralism arising out of a combination of people’s experiences and the ideas explored above, and briefly gives the example of both John Hick and a few Asian theologians: it is not just Western theology that is contextual!

IG ends this chapter by recognising that while all faiths are human, that does not mean it must exclude God. That is the mistake of liberalism. At the same time, conservative Christians need to be reminded that all humans are made in the image of God and that Christians have human shortcomings too. Finally, it is the Bible that we must come back to, to see what God is really interested in.

“We know that we are not able to judge ourselves rightly, let alone to judge our fellow Christians or people of other faiths. We want to hear God’s judgment. This book is in the Lausanne tradition of understanding the Bible as God’s written word. That is where we shall start our search for answers to our questions about people of other faiths.”
A useful chapter, although it suffers a tiny bit from slight repetition. It might also be helpful to note that the word “religion”, when it was used in medieval times, not only referred to what we might now call piety but also to acts of devotion and liturgical practices. In other words, it had a bodily element to it, and so there was no separation between body and soul, or material-spiritual, which is what idealist thought separates.

Chapter 3 is entitled Reading the Bible.


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