Monday, August 25, 2014

Essay 2 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Paul Hedges wrote the second essay in Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008) titled 'A Reflection on Typologies: Negotiating a Fast-Moving Discussion.' The first half of this chapter examines the various typologies or conceptual models that have been used when discussing theology of religions. In the second half, it fine-tunes the classical typology suggested by Alan Race in the 1980s and developed his own 'particularities' model. 

The main typologies that Hedges engages with are:
  1. Alan Race's exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  2. Perry Schmidt-Leukel's atheism, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
  3. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen's ecclesiocentric, christocentric, and theocentric.
  4. Paul Knitter's replacement, fulfilment, mutuality, and acceptance.
  5. Owen Thomas' truth-falsehood, relativity, essence, development-fulfilment, salvation-history, revelation-sin, and new-departure.
Hedges' own typology is based on Race's. He envisages that a good typology should be descriptive (contrast prescriptive), heuristic (contrast normative), multivalent (contrast defining), and permeable (contrast closed). Therefore he suggests that each category should be in the plural: exclusivisms, inclusivisms, pluralisms, and particularities. 

The particularities model that Hedges proposes takes seriously the uniqueness of each religion and so it can hardly conclude how religions relate among themselves. Particularists reject metanarrative. Objective evaluation various religions cannot be done. These are regarded as unknowable. The particularities position is thought to transcends exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. As Hedges writes,
The orientation of particularity has affinities with exclusivist type approaches, in that it sees each faith as being 'tradition-specific', which is to say, it speaks its own unique language about its own unique goals and purposes. It also has affinities with inclusivisms, in that many particularists allow that the Holy Spirit may be at work in other faiths. It might also move towards some measure of overlap with pluralisms, for a number of particularists hold that other faiths display some purpose within the divine mystery and may hold truths from which Christianity can learn.  However, as defined here, particularity is grounded in post-modernism, and it is this which provides its distinctive character. (p.27)
Hedges explains what he means by 'post-modernism',
Post-modernism relates to the theology of religions by disputing basic (modern) assumptions. One of these is the question of whether all 'religions' are pursuing the same goal, even granting that such a category termed 'religions' exists at all. It also emphasizes the need to respect the religions 'Other', rather than fit other faiths within a grand overarching (Western, rational, controlling) metanarrative.
Without metanarrative, particularities have no common ground that could arbitrate between religions. They strongly affirm the unique particularity of each religion. For this reason, their proponents hold on to "indeterminacy" in how God works through other faiths. The Holy Spirit's function in other religions is unknowable. (p.29)

My critique on this model is that it renders futile the quest for theology of religions. If we assume that we cannot say anything theologically meaningful about other faiths from our own religious tradition, then it follows that any distinctly Christian approach to them is impossible. The attempt for theology of religions is conceptually prohibited at the outset.

Hedges has written chapter 6 to elaborate on the particularists position. Perhaps he will address this concern there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pacifist response to the violence in Iraq---ridiculous
The situation in Iraq and Syria is not getting better. The "Islamic State" (also variously known as IS, ISIS, ISIL) has declared itself as a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph on 29 June 2014. Afzal Ashraf explains:
Caliph or Khalifa in Arabic, is used in Islamic tradition to connote theological successors to prophets. According to Sunni Muslims, the prophet of Islam had four "Rightly Guided" caliphs; subsequent caliphs were principally political leaders. A myth developed with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, which advocated that to restore Islamic power it was necessary to unite all Muslims under a single caliphate.
IS issued an ultimatum to all Christians in Iraq and Syria on 19 July 2014, either they convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax, or be slaughtered by the sword. Ten of thousands became refugees overnight. Videos of massacres, severed heads, and victims being beheaded are posted and circulated through the internet. Besides committing genocide in the region, IS militants raped, kidnapped and sold their victims as sex slaves. The militant group also threatens and persecutes other Muslims such as the Shiites

IS expresses plan to expand to Southeast Asia. There are locals who aspired to follow IS to set up a Southeast Asia caliphate spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. It is reported that there are self-radicalised Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans who have traveled to Syria to join IS. Hence, this issue is also a huge concern for Southeast Asia.

On 15 August 2014, the United Nations security council blacklists those who finance, recruit or supply weapons to IS.

I'm curious what do Christian pacifists have to say about IS. The leading pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas was interviewed for his view on the situation in the Middle East. Here is his response:
I'm really attracted to the work that Christian Peacemaker Teams do, who go to Hebron and get between Palestinians and Israelis and say, "can we fix you guys a meal?" I mean, that's at least starting to help people discover one another's humanity, and if you don't do that, I think that any kind of long-term solution is quite hopeless.
 Another pacifist wrote,
[W]e are all made in the image of God. Killing is not only iconoclasm, it’s a re-crucifixion of the Incarnate Christ. It’s participation in the same sacred violence and mimetic impulses that killed God.
The pacifists' position is not only unrealistic but counter-theological. Take for example the latter one. The scriptural verse that says humans are valuable because they are made in God's image in relation to killing is Gen. 9:6. And when we read that verse, God himself sets it out that: "Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind."

The pacifists like to think that the infliction of violence on violent humans is destroying God's image bearers. Gen. 9:6 says otherwise. If IS militants are misusing the Islamic scripture and tradition to pursue extremist ideology, the Christian pacifists are doing the same with their own scripture and tradition.

As for Hauerwas, he should gather all his pacifist friends and fly into Iraq to have a meal with the IS militants. Besides eating, they would most probably end up as contributors to IS' series of gruesome videos.

Realistic and theological response would be much more helpful than ideological mumbo-jumbo. Take for instance, Pope Francis' statement
In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor... I underscore the verb 'to stop'. I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but stop him (the aggressor). The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the unjust aggressor is legitimate... One single nation cannot judge how he is to be stopped, how an unjust aggressor is to be stopped.
World Council of Churches' appeals to the United Nations: 
The international community recognizes that nations have a responsibility to protect their most vulnerable citizens. When a national government lacks the control necessary to ensure citizens’ rights and wellbeing, the responsibility is taken up by international bodies and their member states. We urge you to marshal all available resources to protect the people of Iraq in this hour.
World Communion of Reformed Churches' statement
We call for those who can to lobby their governments and the United Nations to act to protect those under threat.
Some American academics' and religious leaders' petition:
Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISILin Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table... Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Essay 1 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Christianity is one religion among many in the world. Within Christianity itself, there are many different schools, under the main three groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Inter-religious and intra-religious diversity are given. Nonetheless, despite the intra-diversity, what is the most appropriate theological account Christianity should have on other religions?

Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008), edited by Alan Race and Paul Hedges, is a good place to start exploring for answer. The book is divided into two parts. First part is on theoretical and methodological issues while the second part on Christian responses to various religions.

Alan Race, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at St. Philip's Centre, begins the book with his essay 'Theology of Religions in Change: Factors in the Shape of a Debate.' One factor is Christians' interest in other religions. Race lists three reasons for such interest.

First, Christians have a mission to reach out to everyone. Hence it is important for Christians to learn how to relate to other religions, whether is there a need to evangelize; if yes why so, if not why not? Second, religious extremism in our time poses a serious threat to everyone. Christians need to discern how should religion, theirs and others', be expressed not as threat but for human flourishing. Third, for the sake of theological truth. If there are other religions around, then how can Christians give an account for them? (pp.5-6)

Then Race moves on to the next factor, which is on the sources for our reflection on other religions. He cautions the use of scriptures and tradition when we theologize about the religious other. Our interpretation and application of the scripture and tradition cannot be the "sole determiner" or "final arbiters" for our theology of religions. (pp.7-8) Race's suggestion here is helpful but left us hanging. If scripture and traditions are not the only determiners of theological judgements on other religions, then what other sources can we draw from to produce a view that is distinctively Christian?

In the next section, Race provides three areas of interest for us to explore in relation to religious plurality. The first area is on how religious plurality shapes the meaning of our understanding of Christian belief. For example, our knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour needs to be understood vis-a-vis other religions. The second area of interest is in the development of Christianity itself, how can theology be enhanced, without being relativistic, through its interaction with other religions? The third area is in inter-religious dialogue, particularly in the converge or similar ideas found in different religions. (pp.9-11)

Race ends with a call to negotiate between "all the same" and "all different" as a way forward to find a middle path to construct a Christian theology of religions. He points out that this tension is reflected in the New Testament, such as: "Whoever is not against us is for us," (Mark 9:40) and, "Whoever is not with me is against me." (Matt. 12:30)

What I found most provocative in this chapter is the probing question that Race asks: "If Christian theology is a process of reflection on experience---as in the famous Anselmian definition of theology as 'faith seeking understanding'---then we might ask about what constitutes the data of experience.... What level of impact might the data of other religious experiences and convictions have?" (p. 9)

The answer to this question is, I think, the key to an appropriate theological account of every other religion and the reality of religious plurality.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: 'The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults' by Dev Menon

A friend started his new job recently. He started doing over-time work on the third day onwards. This characterizes much of adult working life nowadays. Work changes us more than we realize. And more importantly, how we engage our work changes who we are.

This is a theme explored in Dev Menon's new book The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults (Singapore: Graceworks, 2014). The book serves as a guide for many of us who are swamped not only by our work but also other commitments such as friends, church, and family. We are frantically keeping many plates spinning at the same time---not a healthy way to live.

Dev reminds us that many plate spinners like to believe they are handling all the plates well, that they are keeping all of them spinning fine. Yet, the fact is that when we are so stretched, few if not all of the plates are about to fall and break. 

We can be physically present a church service or family gathering but we are mentally still working in our office. We may be sitting in a meeting with our clients, yet our mind is going through Bible Study questions for tonight's fellowship in church. He calls this 'Frenetic Plate spinner Syndrome' (p.20). 

As Dev points out, our attempt to live a balanced life is impossible:
The whole concept of simply portioning out time and energy to the various segments of life and trying to do all of them well is completely ridiculous. It almost always leads to stress, pain and unrealistic expectations which are never met, causing a deep sense of inadequacy and guilt for those who try to follow, eventually leading to frustration and anger. (pp.31-32.)
Instead of trying to balance our various commitments, Dev recommends centering. We have to make Jesus Christ the center of our life. "Balance is rubbish. Balance will kill you. What we need to do is to centre our lives on... Jesus." (p.57)

When we make Jesus our center, we will learn the re-look at our priorities. We will learn to focus on what is most important at given juncture in our life. And so we also learn when and what to say 'No' to. 

However, Dev reminds us that centering our lives around Jesus is itself no easy feat. It takes a lot of time, space, and money. And if we are not careful, centering becomes another plate that we spin. Dev's point is that when Jesus becomes the center of which our lives revolves around, then we don't need to spin any plate. We become the plate that Jesus spins---he is the source of our discernment and motivation in all that we do at any given point in life.

This is a helpful advice for young adults, especially those who just started work. For those who are already spinning plates, Dev has included a checklist as epilogue to help us move forward. Plate spinner might want to consider spinning this book. It might be the only plate you need at this moment.