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ALPB => On-line Articles => Topic started by: Richard Johnson on May 01, 2007, 05:21:45 PM

Title: The Enlightenment Challenge and Missionary Apologetics
Post by: Richard Johnson on May 01, 2007, 05:21:45 PM
Notes on Affirming Confessional Christian Faith for Our Times
by James A. Bergquist
Copyright 2007 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

     Atheists on the rampage? So it would seem by two polemical books each of which has been riding the best seller lists in the USA and Great Britain for the most part of 2006 and 2007. The End of Faith by the American Sam Harris and The God Delusion by the Oxford professor Richard Dawkins both launch sharp attacks on religion of all kinds, not least the Christian faith. They do so in the name of rationalistic naturalism rooted in the ideology of the Enlightenment. The seemingly wide popularity of both books would seem to confirm what we have known all along, namely, that the secular worldview resonates widely among many Westerners, inside and outside the churches, as a functional if not professed modern ideology. The challenges presented  by these two books call for a renewed and informed missionary apologetic, just as the Christian church has sought to speak a confessional word within all the varied global cultural contexts that it has faced from apostolic times until the present.

     The arguments of the authors are not new, of course. What they have to say is pretty much what has been argued by some Enlightenment figures against God, faith, and religious structures for 250 years and more. But two things make these books intensely polemical. First, is their anger against all manner of religions, ancient and modern. They indict all faiths on the counts of intellectual ignorance for their God-talk, and of moral responsibility for most of the world’s historical violence.  Harris: “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal” or they will unmake our world.”  (page 4) And second, it is the intention of each author to convert all people of faith to a modernism without God.  Dawkins: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” (page 5) Each book radically appeals to and commends the increasingly secular mind-set deeply imbedded within today’s Western cultures, a secular ideology which has been widely exported throughout the globe. Harris and Dawkins are not talking about “secular” within the familiar context of contemporary pluralism -- separation of church and state, tolerance for all faiths, and the idea that all faiths, being relative, are equally valid and open to personal choice because none can claim the truth. The two authors seek to reach farther. Harris and Dawkins are urging a world-view in which reason holds the day and displaces the whole of all religious tradition and revelation as a source of truth.

     Few have pursued a missionary encounter with the Enlightenment ideology with more insight in the past decades than have two great theologians of mission, David Bosch and especially Lesslie Newbigin, both now deceased. In his 1991 classic book, Transforming Mission, Bosch described and critiqued with great clarity the worldview that he calls “the Modern Enlightenment Paradigm.” Newbigin wrote extensively in the last two decades of his life, with numerous articles and books about a missionary approach to secular modernism. Newbigin’s writings are all the more significant because he wrote much after his retirement back to England following a long ministry in India as a pastor and bishop. He applied his uniquely learned missionary experience and earlier prolific writings on mission to the Western cultural context he found at home. We may note in particular: Foolishness to the Greeks (1986), The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (1991), Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (1995),  and Signs Amidst the Rubble (published in 2003 after his death). In one of his key articles, “Can the West Be Converted?” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1987) he wrote: “For millions of people all over the world what we call the modern scientific worldview is accepted quite simply  as the true account of how things in fact are, in contrast to the dogma, myths, and superstitions of traditional religion.”  In those words Newbigin defined our contemporary context and called for a missionary encounter with the Western culture.

     The books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins present unvarnished examples of what Bosch and Newbigin describe and critique in secular modernist and post-modernist ideologies.

      Harris, a younger first-time author, writes a personal polemic without much recognition of counter-claims apart from dismissing them. Dawkins, who has made similar arguments in a string of earlier books, takes more pains to consider (and reject) Christian and other epistemologies. But the basic content of each author follows several common lines. (1) Reason reigns supreme. Both argue that all religions are irrational in a scientific world. (2) All religions are actively evil. Both claim that religious faith of all traditions have been and remain the source of war, violence, and destruction. (3) Morality without religion. Both assert that humans can be morally good without religion based on enlightened rationalism. (4) Proselytism for atheism. Both seek to “convert” people from religion to atheism as a matter of intellectual honesty. (5) The sacred within nature.  Both claim to find a “sacred” dimension of human life within the evolving and still mysterious cosmos without any appeal to such non-rational propositions as theism or a revealed Word. (6) Notions of Revelation grow out of ignorance. Both dismiss the validity of any kind of Revelation as a source of knowledge, reject religious Tradition as unreasonable dogma that perpetuates a false view of the world, and find in Reason the sole source of knowledge. (7) Inevitable progress. Both are confident that a purely natural evolution of human consciousness will lead to moral humanity.

     In the face of the above declarations, along what lines should a missionary apologetic proceed?  Not on Kantian claims for morality based on duty – can moralism survive in a world of pluralistic relativism without a dynamic evangelical core?. Not from an appeal to personal human experience as an alternative source of knowledge apart from reason, tradition and revelation --  such an appeal only leads to post-modern relativism in which all opinions are equally valid. Instead, from a Christian confessional position and in reflecting in part what Newbigin and Bosch have written, one might locate the outline of a genuine missionary encounter with secular modernism as follows.

[continued on the next post]
Title: Re: The Enlightenment Challenge and Missionary Apologetics
Post by: Richard Johnson on May 01, 2007, 05:30:02 PM
     First, rationality has clear  limits in the face of Biblical realism about human nature.[/b] Confidence in the perfectibility of human reason is unrealistic in the face of all our experience of human history. The reality is that sin pervades not only religious institutions but the whole of the human enterprise. Moderns, including many contemporary Christians, may find the idea of sin as demeaning. Yet tough Biblical realism about human bondage to sin and our desperate need for redemption followed by a discipleship of responsibility, both personal and institutional, has far more to commend it than do modernist delusions about human perfectibility through reason alone.

     Second, Christian confessional faith is not in itself irrational. Of course the Enlightenment has had enormous positive results. A missionary apologetic, as Bosch writes, does not mean abandoning rationality but it does mean rejecting its reductionism.  Revelation completes but does not displace reason, as older Christian formulas had it. Jesus spoke a rational truth when in dozens of Synoptic and Johannine passages He declared that the way of the servant stands as the point of hope for a world in search of justice, peace, security and the preservation of the world. Without an authentic realistic Biblical view of the future, in which God brings forth a new song the world remains unrealistically locked to an unrealistic hope for a purely Darwinian transformation of the world (as Harris and Dawkins would have it).

     Third, the way of the cross as proclaimed by and about Jesus Christ is a way of life for a devastated world. Here lies core proclamation for confessional Christians. The Darwinian naturalism as proposed by Harris and Dawkins can only hope for an enlightened self-interest to set things right. Biblical truth sees through this pretension. Human triumphalism is a dead end in both its secular form, that of the Enlightenment and of the old Marxism, and of its religious counterparts as well. The great issues of our day – personal ethics, the environment, global hunger, the multitude of ethnic-based conflict and violence, personal and public integrity, influence peddling and corruption – cannot be resolved by Darwinian human progress.  These issues can only be authentically addressed by discipleship in the way of the cross. Dawkins, and especially Harris, treat all world religions, the Christian faith, sectarian movements, and crackpot notions as evil without distinction. Why? Because fundamentalists are viewed as grossly imperialistic and intolerant, and moderates as “failed fundamentalists” – that is, the products of secularity yet still bound to “spiritual ignorance” (Harris). Such characterizations completely pass by  the core nature of Christian confessionalism.  Confessionalism makes no attempt to turn faith and the Bible into scientific inerrancy, as does fundamentalism. It refuses to root faith in personal experience, as do some forms of Pietism. Nor does it seek to subordinate faith to secular rationalism and historical relativism, as liberal theology has sometimes been tempted to do.  Confessionalism stands within an historic tradition with which it has been gifted and to which it bears witness with no claims to controlling that tradition or using it for triumphal domination.  It seeks to be faithful in witnessing to a message that it has received (paralambano)and that it is now charged with passing down (paradidomi – paradosis). The Pauline formula in 1 Corinthians 11:23 and 15:1-11 each explicitly use these words as technical terms for the Christian tradition, at the center of which stand the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

     Fourth, how is human transformation possible? The grace of God as revealed in the Old Testament story and completed in the Jesus of the Gospels and the earliest Pauline and other interpreters of Jesus proclaims an authentic new beginning. Baptism is a sign of dying and rising to new life. The words of  Jesus in John 3 ring true to human experience: “For no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above … What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  Nature changes and reason may bring improvements, but cannot touch that deepest human need for liberation from self toward the transforming life in Christ.

     Fifth, the authentic calling of the Christian is to a life of witness. Harris and Dawkins contend that all expressions of faith are imperialist and controlling. Confessional Christian faith is quite different. It does not pretend to possess and control all truth but knows that it is called to proclaim what is has received with both humility and clarity. Such  witness does not ignore or excuse the moral failings of the church through the ages, failings that so deeply anger Harris and Dawkins. Such witness acknowledges the perversions of sin within ourselves and our church. But Christian witness points to yet another reality, God’s calling of an imperfect people and church to be bearers a redemptive message that lies beyond us. Such witness also recognizes the reality of the gift of being a people called not for self but for the world, and recognizes that within the communities of faith we may glimpse and experience a partial and preliminary sign of God’s future for the world.

     Sixth, true human freedom at bottom lies God’s renewing grace. It does not lie within  with a supposed emancipation from dead tradition, in antinomian morality, or in the supposed unleashing of unlimited human potential. Such freedom can only result in a new bondage. As George Will has written in a political context, “… It is not ‘natural’ to desire for oneself and others what is best for one’s nature. It is, rather, a triumph of civilization over some of our natural instincts” – in confessional terms, the triumph of grace (not simply “civilization”)over nature.  True human freedom can only be found in God’s gracious release from the bondage to sin, death and self which, as Luther so strongly reminds us, frees the Christian for a life of service to God and others.

     Finally, the truth of the Gospel is to be found by abiding within the community of faith. It is to be found by being nurtured in the worldview of the Bible – a worldview that within its diversity of expression presents a consistent image of the reality of God, man, sin, redemption, and the future hope for the consummation of the cosmos in Christ. The church is both the heir of this reality and its proclaimer through its life of witness in weakness in the way of the cross. It is  by living within the promises of God and the community of God’s people that we are shaped to understand and know the truth.

     Is a Christian missionary apologetic as an encounter with today’s reigning secular ideology needed? Is it possible?  The task can be no better expressed than one of Lesslie Newbigin’s early statements about the challenge. In his article, “Mission in the 1980’s” in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (October 1980, page 155):  “An enormous amount of Western theology has been occupied with the question of restating the gospel in terms of ‘modern thought’. But this can be done in two ways. It can be done by those who take ‘modern thought’ as providing the fundamental models and axioms into which the gospel has to be fitted. Or it can be done in a truly missionary way: standing within the tradition of Christian faith, worship and discipleship,  taking the biblical axioms and models as fundamental, it can seek to bring the word of judgment and grace to bear on the whole world that come to expression in ‘modern thought.’ I am not advocating a biblicist fundamentalism; fundamentalism and liberalism are the twin products of Enlightenment rationalism. I am speaking about something that is known in practical experience, a kind of discipleship that is open at the same time to Western culture and to the testimony of Christians in other cultures, and which is totally committed to obedience to Jesus as he leads us along the way of the cross. It is in that kind of discipleship that the promise of the Holy Spirit is given both to convict the world and to guide the church into the truth.”

James Berquist has been a missionary in India, was academic dean at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and later Director of Outreach for the American Lutheran Church.

Copyright 2007 ALPB. All rights reserved.