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Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Christianity and Religious Diversity" (Harold A. Netland)

TITLE: Christianity and Religious Diversity: Clarifying Christian Commitments in a Globalizing Age
AUTHOR: Harold A. Netland
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (304 pages).

With globalization comes the interactions of cultures. With cultural pluralism comes the clash of different social cultures. With secularism comes the tension with religious and non-religious beliefs and practices. With the rising call for tolerance comes the delicate balancing act of religious convictions versus spiritual diversities. How can one live out the Christian commitment in a globalizing, pluralistic, diverse, and complex interactions of cultures? The one word is understanding. The key motivation for the writing of this book is this: "Responsible theology of religions requires more than simply sound biblical exegesis; it also demands proper understanding of the phenomena that go under the category of religion." In such a climate, it is no longer acceptable for any one religion to insist that it is the right way. While the fact is true that all religions basically teach a certain sense of rigid doctrine, how the doctrine is being lived out is a different thing altogether.
With remarkable insights into modern culture and changing values in society, Harold Netland, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at Illinois's Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has to go back to the fundamentals of cultural understanding before tackling the religious questions surrounding diversity and convictions. In a complex and culturally diverse environment, things can get quite confusing. That is one reason why the author spends time trying to "rethink" religion, what it means and how it is being understood. First, there is the "theological way" of understanding religion. This means understanding the religion from a particular school of faith. For Christians, this means having a worldview that is associated with specific values and teachings. This is why people like Karl Barth puts forth a huge amount of material comprising Church Dogmatics. It centers around beliefs. In contrast, the second method is the "phenomenological" approach looks at how the religion is being practiced. While the "theological" can refer to people having a particular religious expression, the "phenomenological" can refer to all persons practicing a particular worldview. This means that even those who proclaim to be atheistic or agnostic are "religious" in the phenomenological sense. Not only that, there is the issue of Western imperialistic concerns about whether religion is a modern construct brought about as a parallel to the way globalization is now being exported to the rest of the world. Historically, this has a precedence when we see how Europe in the fourth century was defined as "Christians and religious others." In India, there is a "Hindus vs the rest," or "Eastern Buddhism vs the rest," just like many cultures having a majority religion.  The point Netland insists upon is that common understanding of religion is more "phenomenological" than anything else. That is, it expresses the "social and communal component" of religious life. Having said that, while religions generally reflect a social construct and community aspect, there are key differences between culture and religion, like the area of truth claims which are inherently more applicable for the latter rather than the former.

Making it more complicated is the rising secularization of society that comes about through modernization and globalization. Compared to the Middle Ages where having no religion is unthinkable, the modern individual finds it totally acceptable to be totally non-religious. Looking at the West, Netland notes Charles Taylor's observations about three fundamental shifts are brought about by the secularization of the modern world. First, there is no longer a requirement to believe in a particular religion. Second, religious adherents are declining in numbers. Third, general religious beliefs are taking a backseat in society. People are less interested in transcendence matters and prefer to focus on existential concerns. Globalization is not just West to East. Some Eastern religions like Buddhism is also moving to the West. While Westerners tend to shun traditionally Western religions like Christianity, they are becoming more open to variants of Eastern religion like Zen Buddhism. How is Jesus being perceived in a "Global, Postcolonial world?" Religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism generally acknowledge the existence of Jesus but differ in their interpretation of his significance. During British colonial times, many Indians see Jesus as a "religious by-product of British colonialism." Other Hindus turn Jesus into another religious figure to add to their collection of deities. One Hindu teacher called Vivekananda became an influence in Western religious thought by promoting an "assimilation" of various religions so as to make room for all kinds of spiritual beliefs. For him, Jesus was merely a "moral and spiritual teacher." Gandhi, a Hindu came close to embracing Christianity, but eventually adopted theosophy that enabled him to take the best of each religion, but more importantly, for him to deepen his understanding of his own Hindu roots. What Gandhi appreciated about Jesus was the Sermon on the Mount. The 20th Century philosopher, John Hick, advocated a pluralism that includes spiritual universalism. Then there was Shusaku Endo from Japan who combines religion and culture through religious pluralism. All of these persons, according to Netland, have more similarities rather than differences. Here lies the challenge of a pluralistic world that committed Christians face.

Part Two of the book expands of these challenges. The first challenge is that of whether all religions are as true as they had claimed. There are many claims but there are also many conflicts. In trying to resolve such agreement, some turn to atheism which denies any religion as true. Some like Christians prefer their respective positions to truth claims while others like the agnostics take a middle ground denying none but open to all. Mixed in are those views pertaining to relativism and religious pluralism. In trying to bring clarity to a mixed up understanding of theism and pluralism, Netland gives us two points of clarification. First, it is a problem to even call such mixed beliefs pluralistic in the first place. Second, the lack of privilege to any one religion just for the sake of pluralism undercuts the tenets of each faith. For such a situation, Pluralism is the new religion.

What about Christianity? Netland spends one whole chapter to help readers nuance the meaning of the gospel given for all. Religious harmony and co-existence are important considerations for modern society. People are offended by any absolutist stand. For a religion to be true, Netland asserts that making propositional truths are part and parcel of practicing the faith. There is no need to be ashamed of doing that. One needs to be careful to explain that just because Christianity makes certain truth claims, they do not deny that other religions do possess certain levels of truth. It does not mean Christians are more "moral" than others when making these claims. For "truth claims" are different from claims that are based on "traditions." In other words, look at the values rather than the act. Look at the central tenets rather than the peripheral issues. Look at the reality of Jesus and the claims that He had made. On religious diversity, readers are reminded that such awareness is nothing new. In the 17th Century, chemist and philosophers like Robert Boyle had also been troubled by the demands for pluralism and the challenges to his faith as a Christian. The difference between then and now is that Christianity was more accepted then. For religious diversity is not about denying one's faith. It is about being tolerant with multiple truth claims and also ready to make a stand for faith where appropriate. However, there is always a cost. The challenge science make to Christianity is that it is irrational and not based on evidence or facts. Alvin Plantinga's response is that "reasons or evidence"are not absolute proofs of faith in the first place. He is more concerned about fellow believers who needs help in resolving their burdens of questions surrounding their beliefs. Netland moves a step further by insisting on separating "empirical questions" from "epistemic" ones. For faith is not something to be proven but to be received with grace. The issue has more to do with levels of confidence rather than empirical facts. The key problem in Plantinga's apologetics is that it is more meaningful for believers rather than non-believers. Other reasons for faith include religious experience; accepting religious ambiguity; natural signs pointing to God's creativity; and many more. The final chapter deals with the nature of living as Christians in a pluralistic world. There are several principles and practical tips for Christians here.
  • Christians are obligated to being good citizens on earth as well as kingdom people
  • The diverse societies around the world mean that Christians have greater opportunity for witness. Not only are they called to go forth into the ends of the earth, they can minister to the world that have come to them
  • There is a difference between making disciples versus making converts. The former is about changed lives while the latter is proselytization. 
  • Sharing the faith is not shoving information down but shaping and influencing one another to be more Christlike
  • Whatever we do, we do so respectfully with humility and integrity.
  • We promote inter-religious dialogue without compromising our faith and also not condemning another religion
So What?

This book is a brilliant attempt to help Christians understand the complex world they are living in, a world of pluralistic beliefs. As believers are inundated by demands of society, challenged by different religions, various opinions, and a rising climate of secularism and diversity, it is important for Christians to be wise in terms of how to engage. Netland has shown us the way that before we can truly engage, learn about our culture. Learn about the different kinds of beliefs and philosophies in the world that we live in. Expect challenges to our own faith and to be prepared to give anyone the reasons for the hope we have in Jesus. Just because we cannot win any one particular debate or argument does not mean our faith is wrong or false. It simply means we do not have the tools or knowledge to articulate our faith in a manner that can convince the opposition. We are encouraged to rethink what religions means. We can take a leaf from Netland's method by understanding that globalization works both ways. Not only is the West exporting their technological knowhow and their Western cultural norms, the East are also exporting their religions to the West. This calls for a heightened level of awareness to know what we are dealing with. Love people by knowing what they believe. Love one another through the practice of what we believe.

The second part of the book reads like a mini-apologetics but provides much more. Netland maintains the importance of both theological as well as phenomenological aspects of Christianity by not only arguing for reasons for faith, but how the same faith can be put into practice. The last two chapters of the book show the way forward on how Christians can live constructively in an increasingly pluralistic world. He calls us to be more conscious on discipleship rather than conversion. Do more to shape souls rather than to increase numbers. In doing so, we can be welcoming of other faiths yet firm in ours; accepting of others without assimilating their religious beliefs. Above all, we can be like Christ to them in the hope that they too will one day, do the same to others, and if possible, come to Christ themselves on their own free will.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

1 comment:

  1. Good review and appreciate the remarks. My review of this will be published in the next Philosophia Christi journal.