CURRENT CONCERNS FOR CHRISTIAN INTELLECTUAL WITNESS
Themes – Modernity and Resurgence Religion and clash of civilizations; Theology of culture and social engagement; Religion and Culture; Ecclesiology and cultural plurality; Creation and New Age Spirituality; Science and Religion
I. INTELLECTUAL WITNESS TO WIDER SOCIETY
Adolf Harnack observed that the early church gained ascendancy because they not only out-loved their competitors; they also out-thought their critics. The early Christians reveled in the intellectual truth and lucidity of Christian revelation. They were able to rejoice in the order and diversity of nature and social life which they saw as a witness to the greatness of the Creator. They extolled the boundless goodness of God who endow humans with reason, freedom and the promise of immortality. Christianity was commended as enhancement and not an encumbrance to reason and understanding. In short, Christianity was commended as the true philosophy.
But today, the centres of higher education and institutions that shape public perception are in the hands of secular liberals (as in the West) or Muslims (as in Malaysia/Indonesia). Christianity is not so much refuted as perceived to be irrelevant. We need to heed the warning by the great theologian J. G. Machen who wrote, “We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here or there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the relentless force of logic, prevents Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”
We must address the challenge of the cultured despisers of Christianity if Christian witness is to gain credibility:
– Secure a thorough understanding of the modern world.
– Identify crucial issues that must be addressed if we are to follow J. H. Bavinck mission strategy to annex culture, to take every thought captive in Christ.
– Re-conceptualize the framework for Christian reflection and set priorities for theological education. All too often activism replaces serious theological reflection when we act under the tyranny of the urgent. But in the absence of a distinct intellectual framework and with our inability to ferret out and critique the presuppositions of dominant thought patterns of the world, we end up merely responding to the agenda set by non-Christian elites and eventually conform to the spirit of the age.
– Ensure that theology is both grounded in Biblical tradition and critically correlated with contextual realities. This demands a fresh look at theological education and how we train Christian thinkers and pastors.
In effect we are calling for fresh initiatives to nurture Christian intellectuals equipped to confront the sophisticated elites of wider society. At the outset, we must first not equate an intellectual with someone who is highly educated. State education has, after all, been extremely effective in its mass production of narrow technocrats and bureaucrats without souls. In contrast, intellectuals are expected to display the following qualities:
1. Hold that social values and norms arise from objective truth in contrast to pragmatic policies.
2. Uphold truth based on a consensus that is arrived at through a process of philosophical clarification and rational argumentation.
3. Commitment which expresses itself in social and cultural engagement in contrast to ivory tower academics.
4. Address issues in the context of comprehensive intellectual and historical frameworks. This implies that an intellectual is a specialist in his own field who is able to cross the academic disciplines.
The authority of an intellectual is therefore based on his ability to undertake objective, well-informed decisions. Christian witness demands competence. Given the narrow scope of education today and the non-Christian ethos in which it is proffered, Christians must go the third mile if they are to fulfill their vocation of thinking God’s thoughts after him. It will do us well to remember the Christian ideals of attaining moral and intellectual virtues in higher education, “To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know and to digest, master, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object. . . as intelligible as the cultivation of moral virtue” (J. H. Newman, The Idea of a University, p. 92-93).
We are calling for Christians to cast off their amateurish witness and aspire to acquire such skills as suggested by Newman. Without competence Christians will not have the courage to take their message into the public arena. The Christian message will become discredited in the competitive marketplace of ideas. It is evident that an effective witness requires detail knowledge of biblical tradition and our sociological analysis of modern society
II. CONTEXTUAL ANALYSIS
A. Modernity’s Subversion of Religion
Recent experiences of Asian economy highlight the vulnerability of the region to global forces. Economic upheavals grab the newspapers. Other significant changes may be overlooked such as experience of trauma from lifestyle changes, the widening gap between the generations, a sense anxiety in trying to cope with unprecedented changes.
The category of ‘Modernity’ provides a useful category to delineate the array of global forces which impacts cultural identity and religious life today. Some preliminary questions concerning Modernity come to mind:
– What is the ideology and worldview under girding Modernity that constitutes a challenge to the legitimization of religious faith and truth claims?
– What are the institutional carriers that propel those social changes that generate tension between earthly concerns and a life oriented to transcendence? How can religious practice be integrative in the light of differentiation of institutions of modern societies?
– How can religion encourage a political process that affirms recognition of cultural identity and differences of diverse social groupings while at the same time promote national harmony? How may the media play a responsible role in the moral and cultural development of society?
Modernity is a broad concept. For the purpose of this paper it is assumed to be a social and philosophical movement with the following characteristics:
a) Epistemology: The autonomous self in judgment, b) ethics: The imperial self that bows only to its self-created ethical standards, c) social structures: Differentiated and specialized institutions, d) economics: Rationalization based on calculatibility, efficiency, e) bureaucracy: An iron-cage administration, f) politics: Progress in democracy and social justice.
The processes of Modernity are seen in Secularization, Privatization and Pluralization:
Secularization – Secularization is the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. Here is the process whereby the church is losing its influence as a shaper of life and thought in the wider social order.
Privatization – Berger defines as follows:
Privatized religion is a matter of the “choice… or “preference” of the individual or the nuclear family, ipso facto lacking in common binding quality … this religiosity is limited to specific enclaves of social life that may be effectively segregated from the secularized sectors of modern society
Pluralization – Guinness offers a good interpretation of Berger’s thought, writing that pluralization is that “process by which the number of options in the private sphere of modern society rapidly multiplies at all levels, especially at the level of world views, faith and ideologies.” It should be noted that the process of pluralization means far more than a simple increase in the number of “faith options”.
Harold O. J. Brown adds that by pluralism, we mean not only many and varying convictions, but “value pluralism, namely, that all convictions about values are of equal validity, which says in effect that no convictions about values have any validity.”
The result of this process is quite simply the devaluation of truth
The consequences of Modernity includes Moral Relativism, Autonomous Individualism, Narcissistic Hedonism, Reductive Naturalism
B. Modernity in Malaysia – Vision 2020 and Nation-Building
The former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir’s expressed his vision of Malaysia as a modern nation, “ Malaysia should not be developed only in the economic sense. It must also be a nation that is fully developed along all dimensions — economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally. We must be fully developed in terms of national unity and social cohesion, in terms of our economy, in terms of social justice, political instability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence.” MV2020, p. 404
Modernity is epitomized by contemporary preoccupation with maximum profit in a cut-throat competition market, depersonalising of workers in efficiency oriented business corporation and technological means of production, oppressive governmental bureaucracy and loss of authority of religious values in the public sphere.
Modernity at the concrete every day life-experiences includes the following
1. Market Madness and Materialism
The fast pace of economic development has brought affluence. The new rich and famous enjoy unprecedented material opportunities. Theoretically, more resources should be now made available for church work. At the same time, the most valuable resources in terms of availability of workers diminish. The best talents would rather give their life and talents to business corporations where the work is perceived to be professionally more challenging and materially more rewarding.
Everybody complains about the unrelenting work pressure and the Klang Valley Syndrome. This pressure of work dominates our lives whether through overtime demands or traffic jams. People just have no more energy left for building relationships. How much less can we talk about Christian service.
The attitude of consumerism can also creep into the church. People will rather join churches meet their current and changing needs than make demands from them in terms of Christian sanctification and service. Hence, the drive among Christians to build ‘MacChurches’ where meeting human felt needs takes priority over sanctification and obedient service.
Consumerism, coziness and comfort certainly will not encourage a church life and mission that is characterized by sacrificial Christian service and discipleship
2. Family decline and Loss of Kinfolk Relationship
Recent social studies indicate that divorce rates are on the rise in Malaysia. Some factors for this problem includes the fragmentation of the family from its traditional role as a single unit of economic production. Men and women now spend the greater part of the day in different work places. Work relationships between the sexes naturally provide a natural occasions for expression of greater intimacy.
The nuclear family also brings almost unbearable strains to the marriage. Spouses too are no longer willing to bear in silence or resentment the tensions of marital relationship since each spouse now has greater economic independence and emotional outlets. Neither is there any social stigma or sanction to discourage the divorce option. We should appreciate the positive aspects of the extended family and the kinfolk support needed by younger families.
3. Urbanization and Moral Decay
New found affluence has resulted in unfettered materialism that saps the moral fiber and civic consciousness of citizens. The anonymity of urban life easily undermines the neighborliness of traditional society. A pervasive crisis of cultural identity among youths is evident, as characterized by pop culture and the idolization of movie stars and the acceptance of questionable values embodied by media products emanating from Hollywood.
Immigrants to the city experience freedom from the sanction of their village elders and conventional morality. The city also provides anonymity and less restraint against immoral activities in an environment of leisure and pleasure.
Parents caught up with the exhausting demands of pursuit of career and wealth end up neglecting their children. It is so convenient to park them in the clubs. Not surprisingly we observe a loss of discipline and idealism among the youth today.
4. Religious Counter-currents to Modernity – Jihad Versus MacWorld
Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order envisages future conflicts as occurring along fault lines dividing civilizations in general, and along the ‘bloody borders’ of Islam in particular. He asserts that Islam prosecutes international aggression given its persistent belief in universal mission.
Huntington’s brutally realistic reading of history suggests that leaders of countries that have widespread economic inequality and an overwhelming surplus of youth – what Huntington refers as, ‘youth bulge’ – will cynically exploit widespread discontent by channeling youth towards aggression against other nations. In particular, international conflicts will arise from a confrontation with the West on one side and an alliance between Islamic and Sino Civilizations on the other. This bare thesis is backed by an impressive array of historical evidence and socio-political analyses.
Critics have pointed out that Huntington failed to recognize other modes of encounter that range from peaceful co-existence to interpenetration of cultures. Other critics argue that conflicts actually result from geo-political interests and that it is only subsequently that religious and civilization sentiments are co-opted to legitimize the conflicts. Huntington’s rhetoric about the ‘Clash of civilizations’ therefore puts the cart before the horse. That is to say, it is geopolitical conflicts that exploit religion rather than civilizational differences that thrust communities into conflict.
5. Civilization Dialog
The challenge for all the religious communities, especially Islam, is to demonstrate that it has within itself the ethical resources to achieve a genuine common vision. Several implications arise in terms of how dialogue may be achieved in this country. First, dialogue is impossible if any one party (be it traditional Islam or Christianity) maintains an unquestioned absolutism about its position. The Christian is nevertheless encouraged by new openness among those Muslims who have courageously suggested that the Syariah is historically contingent and that the ‘Gates to Knowledge’ be reopened through Ijtihad. There is then room for discussion. However, some caution is in place since openness to Ijtihad is not itself sufficient. The reason is that unless a procedure for Ijtihad is concretely outlined, Ijtihad merely means that you listen to my interpretation. How Islam will overcome this is a matter that should be resolved internally by its leaders.
We refer to case studies by Leslie Browne (The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia) and William G. Young (Patriach, Shah and Caliph). In particular, Young pointed out how the internal divisions within the Church under Islam in Persia resulted in the Christian antagonists appealing to the state leaders to arbitrate their internal disputes. In the process they became beholden to the state and opened themselves to manipulation. Of course, this was consistent with the Persian Church’s acceptance of itself as a protected minority, a millet. But in the process the Church gained short term peace only to be decimated by an inexorable process of long term assimilation. The Church leaders had became small in fighting over parochial matters. Needless to say, the Great Commission was lost in the process. Finally, the Church should resolve to act regardless of the presence or absence of backing from the state. That way it will not expect favors from the government nor will it become beholden to it. On the contrary, the credibility of our witness is proportional to our ability to contribute sacrificially to social life out of goodwill.
This leads to the need for the creation of social space that will lend plausibility to the moral discourse of the church. How should the life of the Church as a community take shape such that it can sustain an independent moral discourse? What moral culture does it express as an alternative that unmasks the distorted values of hegemony? Can the Church delay in setting up its own information channels to ensure that its members are correctly informed on issues of human rights, freedom and social responsibility. How can the church be the “responsible society”?
C. Apologetics and Resurgence of Asian Religions
Islamic and Buddhist intellectuals have gone beyond the defensive posture forced upon them for the last two centuries. Their scholars have regained confidence after retrieving their intellectual heritage, which ironically was made possible by Christian missionary-scholars who undertook the laborious task of translating the classical religious texts. Their apologetics have assumed new sophistication with a new breed of scholars who are at home with both Western and Eastern philosophies. Buddhist scholars offer sharp critiques of the personal theism of Christianity. Islamic apologists have been quick to exploit the results of destructive liberal critical scholarship to undermine the credibility of the Christian message. The confidence of these scholars must surely be strengthened by awareness that Karma-Cola and Buddhist Nirvana have found enthusiastic response from spiritually famished Americans in Western USA.
Christian scholars should not overlook the long-term programs which are implemented by strategic Islamic intellectual enterprise such as the World Conference on Islamic Education in Mecca in 1977. Among the significant decisions adopted at the Conference were:
Systematic initiatives to Islamicize the National Education Systems. The fundamental framework for this program to re-orientate education around Islamic values is found in the Work Plan. The International Institute of Islamic Thought (Philadelphia) and the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) Kuala Lumpur coordinated the implementation of this decision,. New International Islamic Universities were established. A sampling of three dozen monographs on how to Islamicize the academic disciplines and the eventual production of Islamic oriented university texts suggests works of high academic quality. We have no such equivalent from Christian scholars in the Third World.
The point is, Islam approaches inter-religious encounters as a contestation of worldviews backed by forceful political power. In a move to gain the initiative in this debate, Islamic writers frequently suggest that while Islam is a comprehensive and well thought out way of life, Christianity is merely a perverse form of Western individualism that can only undermine the cohesion of Asian societies. [As a side remark I need to suggest that the Christian answer to Islamic da’wah must be a mission that emphasizes the centrality of the Kingdom of God. We find numerous publications which seek to portray Islam as a comprehensive and integrated way of life centred around the one God (tawhid) and the establishment of public institutions to project Islamic practices. Da’wah is nothing less than the re-orientation of the whole of society around God. As Syed H. Nasr explains, it is not divine laws that must be revised to suit changing societies.
If Islam has not hesitated to project political power in its struggle for dominance in a pluralistic society, Buddhism (with the exception of Sri Lanka) often attracts people who are disillusioned with the empty promises of politics as well as the abuse of power in bureaucratic tyranny. In reaction to the historical pattern of exploitation of institutionalized religion by politicians, many Buddhists argue that truth is personal rather than social. Truth is a personal construct built on a series of one’s psychic experiences (often in the context of meditation). Truth and reality in the final analysis are impersonal, reflecting an ever changing universal flux. Authentic existence or liberation from the world of illusion is individual centred.
The consequence is a rejection of propositional truth so dearly beloved by Evangelicals. In common with post-modem nihilism, Buddhism precludes truth claims of realism. The psychic self and the body function as one’s own private aesthetic project. Truth is processed experientially, from the heart, which is experientialy and emotionaly. Spiritual truth is not so much analyzed in abstraction. It should be embodied in concrete role models often exemplified by gurus.
The challenge then to Christian mission is how ensure that propositional and realistic truth claims are concretized and personally embodied. To be sure, Christians question the ideals of salvation that are based on the isolated individual with its subjective, if not nihilistic, tendencies. One doubts too whether the tendency among followers of experiential and mystical spirituality to abandon responsibilities in the public square will not lead to unfettered political tyranny. In response, Christians must insist that it is unnecessary to choose between the individual and the community. On the one hand, communities of truth and inclusive justice emerge from ‘enlarged authentic selves’. Conversely, without authentic relationships in a community there can be no flourishing of the individual.
The above discussion represents only a preliminary engagement with the challenge of resurgent Islam and Buddhism. Further long-term engagement address includes the following concerns. Given the sophistication of polemics mounted against Christianity we can no longer rest content on the simple preaching of the gospel. This calls for a systematic and sustained effort to train Christian thinkers and activists who can defend the integrity of the Bible, the plausibility of the Christian worldview, and demonstrate Christianity as a holistic way of life in cross-cultural apologetics.
D. Apologetics and Modern knowledge
Recent years have seen the emergence of many scientists who straddle comfortable between The Two Cultures (C. P. Snow). I have in mind Paul Davis, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkings, Stephen J. Gould and Daniel Dennett amongst others. Their writings demonstrate modern science as a comprehensive and self-sufficient explanatory paradigm of life and the universe that does not need to appeal to the creator.
Quantum cosmology has dominated public interests, but one should not miss the fact that the real scientific challenge confronting Christian faith is in the field of evolutionary sociobiology and cognitive science. The absence of Christian participation is sadly evident. Hopefully this lacuna will be addressed by new initiatives from Templeton Foundation and new centers of science and theology established in Berkeley University and Chicago University.
Philosophy has become an exciting discipline nowadays with active participants from a new breed of philosophers whose analytical expertise is recognized by their professional peers. One thinks of Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga and the Society of Christian Philosophers, and Catholic schools of Thomism and Phenomenology.
However, the renewed vigor of philosophy has triggered old tensions between theologians and philosophers. New disputes have emerged in debates over Open Theism, Omniscience and middle knowledge, divine eternity and temporality and dualism/monism of the human soul and the emergence of mind. The disputes can be both disconcerting and exciting.
All these trends point to an emergence of a new knowledge class and “the modern experts” shaping social values and perceptions and defining the social agenda of the nation radiating their influence through the professional institutions, the mass media and institutions of higher learning. We note especially the impressive cadre of Islamic ‘Court-Scholars’ at the well-funded Islamic intellectual institutions.
III. MISSION RESPONSE AND INTELLECTUAL WITNESS
Mission Tasks and Assumptions: The new knowledge Class represents an important target audience of Kairos ministry.
Outward Ministry: Our goal is to present a Christian witness that is intellectually competent, comprehensive and credible. While some inquirers may be willing to come to church and relate to Christians on Christian terms, the challenge is to present the Christian message in public discourse on neutral grounds. Indeed, the status quo intellectuals will not ‘condescend’ to meet Christians on neutral grounds. If the intellectual case for Christianity is to be heard, Christian intellectuals must be bold enough to meet non-Christians on the latter’s home-ground. This confidence comes not from a theoretical assent to the claim that all truth is (the Christian) God’s truth. It springs from a well-prepared mind and heart which has mastered the truth and rhetoric of Christianity, the dialectics and dynamics of inter-religious dialogue and debate. Which Christian institution will take up this challenge? Obviously such intellectuals do not spring up overnight. Where can such potential intellectuals be nurtured?
Internal Ministry: It is vitally important that we strive for a Christian community that is holistic, and capable of responding intelligently to the fast pace of change and increasing complex challenges of a modern society. The fact is that our local Christian community is generally indifferent towards developing an intellectual witness of its faith in a modern society. Reason for this indifference included ignorance of new social and religious developments that seriously challenge Christian mission and an inability to retrieve the rich intellectual resources of Christianity to confront such challenges.
Nurturing Local Christian Thinkers
An adequate strategy for our context begins with the following:
1. Holistic Spirituality: Grounding believers in Christian basics in faith and practice.
The knowledge of the average pew warmers in matters of faith and practice is regrettable. There is no greater pain in seeing the great discrepancy found in church members who are community and business leaders with obvious superior intelligence and gifts who seem satisfied with Sunday school level of Christian knowledge. Emotional needs are certainly important but empty minds cannot sustain warm hearts. Perhaps all truth and wisdom is painful, especially if it confronts us with the need to be accountable to the Lord.
2. Christian Vocation and Redeeming the Times
The key initiative is to apply Christian truth through exemplary lives in office, market and club and encourage responsible stewardships of gifts and resources. We are thankful for many fellowship groups held by faithful Christians in their office. The challenge here is to encourage and equip them to be more effective witness especially one which is backed up with consistency between word and deed. We need to recover a sense of vocation and be faithfully serving God whatever station in life we may be.
Nevertheless, it is true that many Christian leaders in the third world do not have enough time to acquire the pre-requisite skills and knowledge adequate to confront the best scholars from the other religions. Hence, it is vital that we begin early to equip younger Christians for such a demanding task. In fact, young Christians are often put on the defensive while undergoing the indoctrination process under their national education system. Christian youths are themselves increasingly vulnerable to conversion to resurgent Asian spirituality.
Unlike their Western counterparts who benefit from the liberal arts program in their general education, Asian Christians are often denied opportunities to reflect on their Christian intellectual heritage, especially if the national education system favours another religion. Consequently many Christians begin serious reflection on their philosophical and theological heritage only when they go to the seminaries. Ironically, they learn about the Asian religion from ‘experienced missionaries’ who have returned to the West. Asian churches that seek to produce Christian thinkers who can match their local religious counterparts are obviously handicapped by such late academic beginnings. It is urgent that we identify promising young leaders and nurture them with supplementary education while they are still in colleges. Long term programs must be devised to enhance their competence in Asian philosophies and religions.
The availability of theological materials that are rooted in cultural contexts has been a desideratum for a long time. We need to bring together Christian thinkers to formulate strategies for social engagement and Christian annexation and repossession of culture for Christ. Christian scholars must develop in-depth cultural analysis and sophisticated critiques of Asian philosophies.
Historically, Christianity has only sent second echelon missionaries to engage in debates with top court scholars of indigenous religions in the mission fields in Asia. Naturally these missionaries do not impress the indigenous elite of Asian religious thinkers. We should train more local Christian thinkers who are willing and able to enter into inter-religious dialogues with court scholars in their land. Such dialogue should be seen as part of the Evangelistic mandate for Christian mission.