CHRISTIAN EDUCATION IN OUR ALTERNATIVE
BELIEF AND BEHAVIOR SYSTEMS
A comparison of alternative belief and behavior systems reveal complicated factors, as the various religions unfold in differing cultural settings in which each tradition finds its classic expression (e.g. contextualization of its authentic expression). Cultural differences make translation of the scriptures of Christian and non-Christian scriptures an extremely delicate and difficult task, thereby increasing the problem of attaining mutual understanding. Even in this very complex situation it is possible to identify major points of disagreement.
Some of the vital factors between the traditions are: (1) The Human Self--the Judaeo/Christian faith assigns to individual human beings the highest significance in God’s sight, while Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, see the self as ultimately an illusion from which to seek release. (2) The Nature of Time--the biblical faith has a strong linear understanding of time as a path to be travelled by the individual pilgrim, while Eastern faiths see time in more circularly recurrent terms. Those clinging to the illusion of the self are destined to live a succession of lives as the wheel of samaira (reincarnation) revolves until they find eventual release from its perpetual return. (3) Suffering--within the samaira cyclicity, one’s fate at the next turn of the wheel is determined by Karma, this entails good and evil and carries forward from the past. The biblical perspective concerning suffering is that it is in no sense an illusion and that its reality cannot be overcome by human efforts. Only the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ can resolve this ultimate problem. (4) History--a religion centered on the attainment of enlightenment is a religion whose principle concern is with timeless truths. Biblical faith in a creator God reveals a serious engagement with the reality of history, corresponding to its linear, progressive understanding of the nature of time, within which their foundational revelatory events took place. This issue unfolds the relationship of creation, providence, and miracle to incarnational revelation. (5) Monism--the scriptures emphasize the distinction between the creator and creation. The universe is not divine. The Eastern religions are monistic pantheism. From a pantheistic perspective ultimate unity of all reality, including the divine, is monistic. In the adviatic tradition of Hindu thought, the ultimate is Nirguna Brahma without any qualities. Monism underlies the assertion of the ultimate illusion of the self, for all are drops in the ocean of being. Here we must take note of a fundamental dissonance between Judaeo/Christian and all forms of Eastern Pantheism.
A variety of responses have been made to the clashing accounts of their encounters with “the sacred.” The Classic Christian response has been that Judaeo/Christianity is true and all other religions are false. This stance is totally rejected by postmodern multicultural tolerance syndrome. Our Restoration Heritage is totally rejected by the maze of the denial of True Truth, anti science, multicultural pluralism. This presents the greatest challenge to all congregations, schools, missionary conventions, The North American Christian Convention and all smaller state conventions.
Exclusivism has been the classical Christian response to our enormous challenge. A prime motivation for this attitude arose from Christianity’s claim of the unique and final character of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Jesus’ words in John 14.6 are totally rejected by postmodern multiculturalism. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” The bridge over troubled waters is that Jesus is the Logos, “the light of all people.”
Pluralism is the opposite stance to exclusivism. Pluralism exposes masks behind which is hidden the Ineffable Real. Biblical revelation overcomes the “Ineffability” thesis. From a human viewpoint, God is ineffable (Romans 1.f, I Corinthians 1.f, Acts 17.22) but by incarnation He reveals Himself in mercy, grace and justice. The essence of Pluralism is the belief that the Real cannot have been unknown and inaccessible for any enduring community. However, there can be other ways of attaining the desired conclusion.
Inclusivism is the stance favoured by many Christians who do not want to be dismissive of the spiritual experiences in their comparison of other faiths. Inclusivism, accordingly, does not deny the presence of genuine salvic experience in the different religious traditions but neither does it deny the final definitive character of God as self-revelation in Christ. God is always and everywhere at work through the hidden activity of the Spirit and no community has been without some degree of true encounter with God (e.g. as Creator not Redeemer). Karl Rahner, a post second Vatican Roman Catholic expresses Inclusivism in his assertion of “anonymous Christians.” Inclusivism is merely a statement of the boundaries within which an acceptable solution may be sought rather than the attainment of that solution. The perplexities of dissonance are still to be resolved, not by human council or seminars but by the God of creation and revelation (e.g. Karl Barth is a universalist as are neo-Evangelicals like Grenz and Pinnoch). Perhaps none of the classical approaches (exclusivism, pluralism, syncretism or inclusivism) are adequate to the complexity and perplexity of the encounter of world faith traditions.
John Polkinghorne perhaps proposes the only cross-cultural source of constructive dialogue--The Nature of Science (see my “History of Narrative Displacement in The Scientific Enterprise” and “Anti Science”). But in postmodern anti science there is no cross-cultural point of encounter. Perhaps a relationship between scientific and religious understanding would provide a place of meeting if there is a constructive response to the postmodern anti-science movement. This might provide a true Ecumenical Encounter between alternative/contradictory belief/behaviour (see my “Demise of Foundationalism” “Two Cultures in Postmodern Confrontation: From Rationalism to Irrationalism” and “World Views in Conflict”)
Dr. Polkinghorne brilliantly discloses one possible approach to Ecumenical Dialogue between alternative belief/behaviour systems. The history of ecumenical discourse reveals that discussion from the top-down of general principles (e.g. worldviews, social construction of reality (Sociology of Knowledge thesis), narratives, legitimization structures) do not produce positive results. A more positive, possible encounter would be from the bottom-up. No one can pretend to attain some magisterial vantage point from which an objective, neutral application can be given. Data can be objective but the interpretation entails a structure of hermeneutics. This is an essential issue if we can trace the narrative displacement of the historical development of science/scientific method.
Some agenda suggestions of Polkinghorne are:
(1) How do we understand the nature of the physical world and our relationship to it? What is the kind of knowledge we can attain?
(2) What is the relationship between religious metaphysics and quantum theory mixture of structure and flexibility and its picture of an interconnected web of events that participate in togetherness in separation. Does this dissonant/resonant correspondence between Eastern and Western thought.
(3) How do the creation accounts (Genesis 1-11 use in Romans) relate to the creation stories of the “faith traditions?” The only place in the world’s literature where an absolute “origin” of the universe is affirmed is in Genesis 1.1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Note in the RSV it reads, “in the beginning “when” God created the heavens and the earth”) Therefore, the Genesis account of the creation of the universe encounters all forms of naturalistic pantheistic materialism. The explanation of the origin of the universe is a constructive place to start a positive engagement of the world’s Faith Systems.
(4) Is the “deep” intelligibility of the cosmos and then “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in its scientific description, a sign of the cosmic presence of “mind”, i.e., “a rational mind”, i.e., God? The only God worth believing in is the God of creation and redemption in the Judaeo/Christian heritage. This claim stands in opposition to all forms of eternal matter and chancistic origins of the complex building box of reality.
(5) Is the anthropic a fine-tuning of the laws of nature in this universe a “sign” of the cosmic presence of Purpose?
(6) How do the insights of neurophysiology, psychology and the philosophy of the mind affect our understanding of the human person? Is there a coherent and stable concept of the human self? (see my papers, “The Lost Person in Post Modern Science” “The Neurophysics Revolution: Shaping Forces of The Counter Culture” “The Counter Culture Meets the Neurophysical Revolution” “Demise of the Person in Post Modernism” “The Christian Stake in the Human Sciences”)
(7) What is the significance of the science prediction of eventual cosmic collapse or decay? (e.g. Entropy, Big Bang, Steady State, etc.
(8) Does analogy with scientific community offer any insight into the balance within the religious life between cognitive understanding expressive commitment and a communally conducted life?
(9) What role does bottom-up thinking, so natural to the scientist in the way it seeks to move from evidence (data) to understanding, have to play in the intellectual reflection upon religious claims?
(10) Polkinghorne’s proposals are sound suggestions for creative, constructive encounter in both the scientific and religious sphere. Perhaps an examination of the narrative displacement in the history of scientific development can reveal the personal and community acceptance of changing received views, i.e., Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church’s response can be a starting place. The Roman Catholic Church could not receive the new astronomical data because its interpretative narrative was Aristotelian astronomy. When it was acknowledge that the Aristotelian cosmology could not engage the new data, a paradigm shift/narrative displacement took place in the official Roman Catholic Church interpretation the same could be constructively engaged in the Newtonian Revolution, the Kantian Copernican Revolution, the Darwinian Revolution, 19th century scientism, and the 20th century Post Modern Revolution. Each of the turning points in cultural development needs to be critically asserted by the Judaeo/Christian narrative to see whether or not the Christian narrative (paradigm/world view) should rationally be maintained. Christian conviction is a strange bedfellow in our post modern
The Nicene Creed was formulated in the course of the same century that had seen Constantine’s conversion, and with the consequence that, for a long while after, the theological debate was internal to Christianity. The many “gods” and many “lords” (I Cor. 8.f) of the Mediterrean world disappeared, as would the gods of northern Europe, while the rift with Judaism was too deep for serious exchange to take place between the two religions for many centuries. For several centuries after the rise of Islam, the principal Christian response to this new religion was by way of resistance to its incursions and attempts at reconquest. How different is the situation today in our postmodern multicultural world? World-wide communications and extensive immigration have made us only too aware that Christianity is but one among the several great historic traditions present in the world of alternative belief systems. For the bottom-up thinker there is a perplexing contrast with the spread of modern science. Originally the product of Western Europe, it has proved eminently exportable, so that one can expect to receive the same answer to a scientific inquiry, whether it is made in Cairo, London, Tokyo, New York or Delphi. The culturally inherited religions have shown great stability in the face of more than two centuries of widespread Christian missionary effort. It is a pressing problem for a credible theology, second only to the problem of suffering, to give some satisfactory account of why the diversity of religious affirmation should not lead us to the conclusion that they are merely the expression of culturally determined opinions (multicultural pluralism in our post modern culture).
Kenneth Cragg reminds us that even in the 17th century, John Bunyan felt the difficulty. In Grace Abounding, he wrote, “Everyone doth think his own religion rightest, both Jews and Moors and Pagans: and how of our faith, and Christ, and scripture-- should we but think so too?” There is unquestionably a degree of cultural determinism in our actual religious beliefs. But the intimate question remains--is science simply a cultural artefact? (W. Pannenburg, Theology and The Philosophy of Science (Darton, Longmead Todd, 1976; John Polkinghorne Science and Theology (Fortress, 1998). We are here faced with the “genetic fallacy” of supposing that origins explain away the content of belief. Ideas are context specific, but the truth/validity of ideas are not context bound. The “genetic fallacy” lies at the heart of our relativistic multiculturalism debate!
To some extent the effect of culture is the inescapable deposit of the separate historical developments of communities. In this intellectual maze there has been three broad avenues of approach to the problem of religious diversity (see J. Polkinghorne Rochester Roundabout (Longman W.H. Freeman, 1989, chp 21 for his response). The approach which is usually called pluralism regards the world’s religious traditions as being in essence, equally valid expressions of the same fundamental religious quest, different pathways up the spiritual mountain. Its fundamental presupposition is the conviction that God cannot have left himself without witness at most times and in most places; that most people cannot have been cut off from his saving grace just by the accident of circumstances. John Hick expresses the extreme position: “Can we then accept the conclusion that the God of love who seeks to save all mankind has nevertheless ordained that men must be saved in such a way that only a small number can in fact receive salvation?” (quoted in G.D’ Costa (1986) Theology of Religious Pluralism (C.M. Press; see also his ed. Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered (Orbid Books, 1990); see critique of this categorization by M.C. Barnes, Religion in Conversation (SCM Press, 1989).
But ultimate universal access to salvation does not require the proposition of the essentially equal validity of all current religious points of view. Hick’s pluralist strategy is based on viewing religious traditions as alternative schemes of salvation, means for the transformation from self-centeredness to reality centeredness. (J. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (MacMillan, 1989), p. 36). Hick’s analysis is purely pragmatic, i.e., soteriological. The answers to this haunting problem can receive only four possible answers: (1) Universalism (all are saved); (2) Election (only the elect are saved); (3) Annhiliationism (all are destroyed); (4) All individuals are immersed into a cosmic “One”, i.e., pantheism
There is an exclusivism in Christ’s claim in John 14.6 “No one comes to the Father but by me;” and in Acts 4.10-12, “In no other name can one be saved” (contra Vatican I and II claims from no salvation outside the Church to Rahner’s “Christians anonymous”, e.g. Barth’s implicit Universalism in his Church Dogmatics), though he denied that he was a universalist). Moltmann’s inclusivism is expressed by stating that “outside Christ there is no salvation. Christ has come and was sacrificed for the reconciliation of the whole world. No one is excluded.” (J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of The Spirit) (SCM Press, 1977), p. 53) The inclusivist position confers no monopoly of truth on any tradition and therefore it encourages dialogue between traditions. Is Christian commitment merely arbitrary pious subjectivism? The secularistic pluralism of our post modern world makes the task of “encounter more pressing.” Dialogue must replace “mutual suspicion.” It is only too easy to turn Christian trinitarianism into tritheism; hidden practice into a merely animistic polytheism.
Dialogue with the Bhagavad Gita and the Qur’an have formidable linguistic and hermeneutical barriers (read II Cor. 12.3,4). No Christian should deny God’s special relationship with his ancient people, who were the vehicle of his historic revelation and the community from which Jesus sprang (see my paper, “The Only Expected Person in History”). Yet these differences between Jew and Gentile we understand now to be transcended in the new fact of Christ (Gal. 3.28; Eph. 2.14,15). What that means in relation to all that valid experience of God preserved in Judaism is a greater question with which Paul wrestles in Romans 9-11. In all of our post modern dialogue, perhaps the most promising approach in the common ground of Science, which may be the only exclusive basis for dialogue. There is no Inclusivism in Science in spite of the anti science influence in post modernism.
(See the following works: M. Barnes, Religions in Conversion (SPCK, 1989). A critique of the exclusivist pluralist/inclusivist classification.
D.A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate (Baker, 1998).
G.D. Costa, Theology and Religious Pluralism (Blackwell, 1986. A discussion in terms of the exclusivist/pluralist/inclusivist classification.
H. Kung, Christianity and World Religions (Doubleday, 1986).
A. Race, Christianity and Religious Pluralism (SCM Press, 1983). A discussion in terms of exclusivist/Pluralist/Inclusivist classification.
K. Ward, Religion and Creation (Oxford University Press, 1996). Continues a discussion of Interfaith issues.
T.G. Barbour, Ethics in an Age of Technology (SCM Press, ‘93).
James Strauss, Lincoln, IL 62656