Monday, October 29, 2012

How Should We Think About Other Religions?

Image (c) 2012 Joel Settecase. May not be used or reproduced without permission.

N.B.: In this article, the “Netland” text is: Netland, Harold. Encountering Religious Pluralism. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001. This is a great book if you are wondering how to approach apologetics in the postmodern world. 

Key Question

The world is filled with myriad religions. Most evangelical approaches to this issue in the past have focused primarily on the destiny of the un-evangelized adherents of those religions (Netland 308). While wrestling with that matter is important, it is not sufficient for a comprehensive theology of religions. Here is the question we must ask ourselves: as Evangelicals, how do we face our responsibility of explaining the relationship between Christianity and other religions (Ibid. 309)?

Netland’s Propositions

An evangelical theology of religion must pay attention to (at least) these three questions (311): (a) what happens to those who never hear the Gospel? (b) How do we account for human religiosity? (c) How do we adapt the church to contexts steeped in other religious traditions?
A “comprehensive theology of religions… should meet at least the following two conditions” (313): (d) Faithfulness to Scripture and church confession and (e) Phenomenological accuracy in how it portrays the “beliefs, institutions and practices of other religious traditions.”
In other words, a sound, evangelical theology of religions must answer certain crucial questions which present themselves, and it must be both biblical and fair in its approach. Netland consoles those worried about (a) that God will be fair to the un-evangelized (315). He then cogently and clearly lays out the components of a framework to answer (b) and (c) and accomplish (d) and (e). I will draw on Netland’s method and extrapolate his important propositions in order to create a metaphor for the whole process, which anyone may then use to construct his or her own theology of religions.

Main Points

Now that we know the two goals of a theology of religions, how shall we go about crafting our own? To do this, Netland cites David Wells’ three elements of theology: confession, reflection, and virtues (311).
Presenting theology of religions analogically as a building under construction, Netland depicts virtues sitting atop the “pillars” of confession and surrounded by the “scaffolding” of reflection.

A Helpful Metaphor

Let us extrapolate Netland’s “building” metaphor. First it will be helpful to divide confession and Scripture into two separate elements. Bible study, after all, is a first-level discipline (dealing directly with the text), whereas study of confession is second-level (dealing with discussions about the text) and involves, “disagreements about what the Bible teaches on any one subject, as well as how that teaching should be assembled...” (311).
Scripture and confession are bound up with one another, but they are best viewed as separate components. Netland hints at this on page 313, where he elaborates on Scripture’s role in the theological process.
Now we have four distinct but interrelated components to our theology of religion. Taking Netland’s ideas one step further, we shall organize these three elements into a hierarchy. Each component builds upon the previous one.   

Outline of Steps


I.         Scripture (foundation):
                                                               i.      Here there is much relevancy for theology of religions (313)
                                                              ii.      However it is not comprehensive (313)
                                                            iii.      We must approach this with “theological humility and modesty” (but not agnosticism!) (314)
                                                            iv.      Three sets of issues in Scripture (314)
1.        Explicitly treated
2.        Inconclusive
3.        Not explicitly treated
II.       Confession (pillars/arches):
                                                               i.      God = “morally pure;” sovereign creator (315) and humanity in his image (316)
                                                              ii.      Scripture = definitive revelation (316)
                                                            iii.      Creation = corrupted by sin (318)
                                                            iv.      Jesus = God’s way of reconciliation (319)
                                                             v.      Christians = duty-bound to evangelize (323)
III.     Reflection (flying buttresses):
                                                               i.      “‘The intellectual struggle to understand what it means to be the recipient of God’s Word in this present world”’ (313). Informed by the past; Responsibly connecting all of Scripture to the world
                                                              ii.      Connects confession and societal norms.
                                                            iii.      Deals with three issues (310)
1.        Destiny of the un-evangelized
2.        Explanation of human religiosity
a.        Creation/Revelation, sensus divinitatus (331)
b.       Sin (334)
c.        Satanic Influence (335)
3.        Missiology: how can we build on other religions to evangelize?
IV.    Virtues (steeple):
                                                               i.      Truth valued over and above technique
                                                              ii.      Links thought and practice (affects how we think about and interact with other religions)
                                                               i.      Requires accuracy when describing other religions (313). (Netland does not include this among the virtues (he includes it elsewhere), but the honesty and accuracy he calls for fit logically within this category)

Evaluation and Conclusions

According to Netland, these components are crucial to the process of establishing an evangelical theology of religions. The metaphor of a cathedral is appropriate (see diagram above). Using this organizational method, anyone willing to put in the time and effort can work their way from scripture to the virtues needed to develop his or her own theology of religions.
Finally, how can we know if the theology of religions we have developed is appropriately built? Netland includes some guidelines against which we can check our theology of religion. Ask these two questions: 
(1)  Is it “shaped by the teachings, values and assumptions of the Bible,” and, “faithful to the central confession of the church throughout the centuries” (313)?
(2) Is it “phenomenologically accurate in how it depicts the beliefs, institutions and practices of other religious traditions” (313)?

Questions for Further Thought

1)       Which of the four components is most important to an evangelical theology of religions? Why?
2)       What other metaphor would you use for a theology of religions than a cathedral?
3)       Is it important for all Christians to develop their own theology of religions, or just “professionals?” Why?
4)       Have you given serious, systematic thought to explaining the relationship of other religions to Christianity? What method did you use?

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