Recently, while preparing a paper for a conference on ‘God and the Gods’, I found it necessary to do some reading outside my ‘field’, in the course of which I came across this week’s Good Book, written by Harold Netland, associate professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago: Encountering Religious Pluralism. The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove/Leicester: IVP/Apollos, 2001). Religious pluralism (differing religious beliefs) can be traced back to the beginnings of recorded human history, but it is a phenomenon of which people have become much more aware in the last hundred or so years. This book is an informed, evangelical response. The author spent many years in Japan, and has also read and studied widely in the field. It is clear that he has reflected long and carefully on what he writes about. The perspective of the book is somewhat western, but readers will recognise that the church in Singapore and other parts of Asia faces very much the same issues.  

The first part of the book (‘Religious Pluralism in Context’) surveys the field in some detail. The first chapter discusses shifting attitudes towards other religions and missions in mainstream Christian denominations.

Chapter 2 analyses major intellectual and other trends in the modern world which combine to make religious pluralism attractive to many (modernity/post-modernity, globalisation, etc.).

The next chapter gives a brief history of western attitudes towards non-Christian religions, beginning with 16th and 17th century, when the empire-building nations of the West started to have contact with non-Christian religions, and concluding with a fascinating comparison of two Parliaments of World Religions held at Chicago a century apart, in 1893 and 1993. (The first parliament was still a predominantly Christian gathering, but any such privileging of the claims of Christianity had been abandoned by the time of the second parliament a century later.)

Chapter 4 attempts to trace the roots of contemporary attitudes towards religious belief, giving brief histories of scepticism, perspectivism (relativism), pluralism and secularisation. The combined effect of these trends has not generally been the abandonment of religious belief, but rather a shift away from ‘religion’ towards ‘spirituality’, that is, away from relatively well-defined and shared systems of belief towards a more individualistic quest for personal truth and fulfilment. Needless to say, such a climate of thought poses a challenge for those who would present Jesus Christ as the only ‘name by which we must be saved’.

The final chapter in this section surveys the life and thought of John Hick, one of the leading contemporary advocates of religious pluralism, who began his adult life as an evangelical Christian, but whose perspective has gradually shifted over the years so that his life exemplifies many of the trends discussed in the preceding chapters. This focus on the life of one influential scholar usefully complements the more general surveys of the preceding chapters.

 The second part of the book (‘Engaging Religious Pluralism’) begins by considering the fact of conflicting truth-claims among the world’s religions. Different religions differ widely in their analyses of the nature of reality and the human situation, and it is not helpful to propose that these differences are trivial. Different religions are not in the end saying the same thing (though some common beliefs and experiences can be noted between particular religions), and it is not coherent to claim that something is true for one group but not for others.

The next chapter considers the problems of pluralism, evaluating the thinking of Hindu and Buddhist advocates of pluralism, and then turning to a more detailed investigation of the pluralism of John Hick. This section, a model of courteous, fair and careful critique, evaluates Hick’s position sympathetically, but concludes that it is seriously flawed.

This leads into a discussion of apologetics and religious pluralism. Against those who argue that any attempt to persuade others of the truth of one’s beliefs is inappropriate in inter-religious discussion Netland argues that it is not only appropriate but necessary. After all, we do not normally accept claims which have serious implications for our lives without good reason. Christian apologetics simply attempts to provide reasons for Christian belief, and it has a long and venerable tradition in church history. There follows a wise and helpful discussion of how to engage in apologetics. It must be carried out courteously and honestly; there must be no resort to caricature in order to win arguments; and in some sensitive situations great caution is necessary. But it is not fundamentally misguided enterprise.

How, then do we compare and evaluate different belief systems? Are there any ‘context-independent criteria which allow us to assess truth claims across cultural and religious boundaries’? Yes, there are, though they need to be appropriately applied. They include: internal consistency; ‘congruence with what is known to be true in other domains such as history and the sciences, explanatory power in accounting for fundamental aspects of human experience’; and lastly, ‘an acceptable religion should satisfy some basic moral and aesthetic intuitions and provoke and inspire persons to live more morally responsive and responsible lives’ (p. 291)

The final chapter (‘Towards an Evangelical Theology of Religions’) usefully pulls together many of the strands of the preceding discussion. It notes different evangelical responses to the phenomenon of religious pluralism, and sketches a biblical framework for understanding and responding to other religions. Netland insists on: (i) accuracy in depicting other religions; (ii) honesty and openness in presenting our own claims (eventually we have to talk about Jesus, and indeed adherents of other religions who genuinely want to discuss the claims of Christianity will expect us to do so); (iii) a spirit of love and respect towards members of other faith communities.

 This is a well-written, clear and helpful book, which draws together insights from a number of fields (cultural analysis, church history, comparative religion, philosophy of religion). The footnotes drawing attention to significant writings in these fields are a gold-mine. The argument is at points quite detailed, and this is not a book to be skimmed through. But I think you will find it rewarding if this is an area which interests you at all (and ought it not to, as a 21st-century Christian?) I conclude with what is for me the highest recommendation of all: if you borrow this book, please don’t hang on to it for too long, as I want to read parts of it again!

 

(Reviewed by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)

CHAPEL

     Chapel Speaker on 15th October was Dr Ng Peh Cheng. The following is a summary of her sharing from 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6.

The Apostle Paul experienced difficulties in the Christian ministry. He had pastoral and relational conflict with the Corinthian Christians. He suffered criticism, accusations and ridicules from the "false prophets" who undermined his authority as the commissioned Apostle of Jesus Christ. Despite the odds, the Apostle Paul was perturbed but not deterred. Standing firm on his divine calling, he was emphatic and confident that the accomplishment of the ministry given to him was empowered by the Spirit of God, not by self-made sufficiency.

In times of experiencing adverse situations in our ministry, role-take the experiences of Paul and replay the meaning of, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Aptly, David E. Garland has paraphrased it, "when God gives one such a ministry, God also bestows the necessary sufficiency to discharge it." 

Chapel on October 29 will  be taken by Dr John Lim.

NEWS BITS

We extended a warm welcome to Dr Bernhard Kaiser. He was our Guest Lecturer for the course on “Justification by Faith - Was Luther Mistaken?”. He is the Co-founder & Principal of the Academy for Reformation Theology, Germany.

A BLESSED BIRTHDAY TO ...

Mr Anton Chan  22/10

Mr Mark Sng  22/10

Mrs Samantha Azhar  23/10

Mr Michael Han  23/10

Mr David Au  23/10

Mr Peter Low  24/10

Mr Peter Soh Chee Song  24/10

Rev Ian Heng  25/10

Dr Lee Chien Earn  25/10

Mr Michael Teoh  26/10

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