Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: on thinking about other religions

There were various seminars on offer at the student getaway, and I was asked to co-lead one on other religions. Now I’m patently not an expert on world religions, and when you factor in that people can spend 3 years in university doing religious studies, and I had 75 minutes...the task seemed gargantuan! So when I sat down to think how I would do this seminar, I had to think about what I wanted to achieve with it. And one of the big things I came up with was to try to model (very much imperfectly) how to think about the topic of other religions from an explicitly Christian perspective. I thought I’ll offer here some bits and parts from that seminar and how I attempted to run it.

I ran the seminar 3 times over the week, and each time I started by asking why people were in my seminar. They fell primarily into 2 camps: one camp felt as if they had absolutely no knowledge on the subject, and so wanted more information. One or two of them were perhaps motivated by the increasingly multi-cultural nature of British society. The other camp were those who would inevitably say, "I have a friend who is..." and so they wanted to, essentially, know how to be a good Christian and friend.

I then tried to show that while we had all sorts of good questions and agendas in coming to the seminar, and indeed, to the Bible, it would be helpful to begin from another starting point. In essence, before asking our questions, I wanted us to take a step back and proceed to ask, what is the biblical story? After all, if we call ourselves Christians, we would inevitably want to take the Bible as our authority, our foundational story. But just as importantly, I wanted people to see that the Bible wasn’t just a 'Christian' book, but made even grander claims than that. It claims for itself that it is the narrative of everything, from the beginning to the end of history. It focuses in on particular individuals, families and nations, but it is actually telling the story of humanity. And so the Bible is for all peoples, of every religious background, of every age. To ram home the point, I included this great quote from a Hindu scholar to Leslie Newbigin, a missionary in India for many years and who’s written extensively on the topic of mission – some of my readers might be familiar with him. This Hindu scholar said:

"I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion – and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the whole human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it."
And so the Bible, while not necessarily answering every single specific question we have, nonetheless gives us fixed points in our reflections on this question. It gives us the shape of the story we’re in.

I then went through 4 questions:
1. Who is God?
2. Who are we?
3. What’s gone wrong?
4. What’s God plan for the world?

And tried to go through these questions in light of the issue of other religions. Let me highlight how I tried to do this with the first question. Firstly, I went to Psalm 97, and asked what we learnt about God from it. From Psalm 97, and from quite a few of the other psalms, especially those that stress God’s kingship, we can learn quite a bit! I then asked how what we learn about God here impacts how we think about other religions. What does the truth, for example, of God as God of all nations shape our thinking? Or the fact that there is only one God? I argued that (although I have to confess I’m not completely sure if this is that explicit in Psalm 97!) that we find both a challenge and an invitation to adherents of other religions. Another way of putting it, which I learnt from my seminar co-leader, is "subversive fulfilment" (which might also be borrowed from Newbigin!). The gospel comes as fulfillment of the religious longing in the heart of humankind. Yet the gospel also stands in contradiction to human wisdom twisted by sin.

I then went to Acts, and one example of how Paul allowed this fixed point to shape his engagement with people of other religions. In Acts 14:8-18, we find the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, where they perform a healing. Immediately news spread and they are feted as gods. And so Paul uses this as a preaching opportunity. But he does so aware of his audience, who would have been pagans who followed traditional Greek popular religion. Earlier on in Acts 13, he had preached to a Jewish audience, but he can’t employ the same rhetorical methods here.

So he begins with common ground, with their shared humanity (v.15), correcting their mistaken notions in the process. He then proclaims the truth that there is one Creator God (v.15b), and indeed He is a God who is sovereign over all the nations (v.16). He then moves on to the truth that God has revealed himself (v.17), that He is the provider and sustainer of life. That would particularly resonate with his hearers, from an agrarian culture, but implicitly it posed a challenge too, since that meant Zeus, the god of vegetation and weather, whom they worshipped, wasn’t in control! Paul had mixed results (v.18-19).

And so I did the same with the rest of the questions (although I think my one on sin was quite superficial!). If we’re all made in the image of God, then surely we need to think of all human beings in that sense first before we think of them as Hindu/Muslim etc. If God left us with a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, then surely it is right to celebrate aspects of culture which are not blasphemous, although the question of how to disentangle culture from religion is a much more complex one which I steered away from! And so on.

I suppose one thing I realised and would have liked to rectify in my seminar was that Jesus did get sidelined a little. One of the interesting things in Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 is that he doesn’t mention Jesus at all, but I’m pretty sure he would have eventually got there if he had time and opportunity. But he needed to lay the ground first with people whose worldviews must have been radically different from his.

Jesus is mentioned, of course, in question 4, but otherwise I didn’t really think through how he would have fitted in. In John Dickson’s book, A Spectator’s Guide to Other Religions, he has an interesting chapter near the end called “What’s Wrong with Jesus?” in which he shows how Jesus just doesn’t fit into any of the other religions various doctrines or ethics or philosophies, and that’s one way to do it. I recommended John’s book in the seminar, btw, and I was interested to notice that it sold out at the bookstore by the end of the week! I should be in marketing...

One other thing I’ve learnt, 75 minutes is pittance. Not once in the three times I ran my seminar did we get through all our material. Admittedly I was pretty interactive and so allowed people to come back at me rather than rigidly stick to what was in my outline. But still, it’s amazing how quickly time flies! The second time I ran it was probably the smoothest, probably because people seemed to have their expectations adjusted accordingly.

Well, it’s the first time I’ve done anything like this, and so it was a good learning experience. I’m not sure how much I helped students - I certainly hope so!

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