3 Shifts Evangelicals Should Make with the Religious Other— An Excerpt from "There Rock Is Not Like Our Rock"
Daniel Strange's new book "Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock" fills a crucial gap in the evangelical evaluation of the role of other religions. In his thoughtful, nuanced, and biblically faithful engagement with a theology of religions, Strange proposes, speculates, and even provokes readers into further theological reflection and missiological action.
He hopes his study will prompt three shifts in evangelicalism when it comes to the religious other:
- Understand different religions and love the religious Other;
- Interact with other theological disciplines;
- Rehabilitate and reclaim the discipline of religious studies.
Strange admits this "to do" list forms an "ambitious agenda," but he believes "it is a necessary agenda both for the church’s witness to the world and for the church’s discipleship of her people." (338)
Buy and read Strange’s work if you are trying to understand how to engage our pluralistic world without jettisoning Christ’s exclusivity.
Having spent nine long chapters outlining my theology of religions, it might now seem a little odd to call what I have done a piece of theological scaffolding and furthermore to call upon Christian brothers and sisters to strengthen and nuance my thesis further. However, this was always my intention with this study: not only to give some theological answers and offer some pastoral comfort in our world of the religions, but also to propose, speculate and even provoke us into further theological reflection and missiological action. As I bemoaned at the beginning of this study, although there are signs that we are getting our act together, compared to other Christian traditions, and even other evangelical traditions, since the 1960s Reformed evangelicals have lagged well behind in providing a rich and detailed theology of religions. I hope this study will prompt us to engage further in a number of areas.
First, a call to evangelicals to have both a living knowledge of other religious traditions and a loving attitude towards those who are part of them. If Christians are convinced of my approach, then they will take this dogmatic outline and apply it to their own ministries and contexts. What we need to see emerging are detailed and sophisticated attempts, more scalpel than machete, that seek to demonstrate how the gospel of Jesus Christ is the subversive fulfilment of the myriad instantiations of the religious Other. While it may be anecdotal, having taught this material in a British seminary for a few years now to those about to enter Christian ministry, it is not unfair to say that in general my students have often grasped the theological framework of subversive fulfilment better than the actual application of the framework in a particular religious tradition. I have no doubt that in some part this reflects my primary vocation and calling as a theological educator and systematician, but I am concerned that, even in as multicultural a place as Britain, our working knowledge of other religious traditions is either too academic or just too shallow. For the sake of the gospel we need to be engaging and immersing ourselves in the lives of the religious Other. On the other hand, a number of missiological practitioners I have met over the years have spent their lives engaging with a particular religious tradition and have both this knowledge and love. However, and again I hope I am not being unfair, sometimes the theology of religions that guides their praxis can be unreflective, shallow and sometimes questionable in terms of both exegesis and systematic reflection. If my own contribution is weighted to the theological side, then what I have wanted to achieve in this study is to provide a solid but subtle theological basis for missiological engagement.
Secondly, just as the global church is enriched as a whole when Christians from different cultures come into contact with each other, so there needs to be a breaking down of the high walls (erected by Enlightenment builders) between different theological disciplines, so all can be enriched. In a rather inelegant way I have attempted to model this by recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses. To reiterate what I said in the Introduction, I am fully aware that this has been an ambitious, maybe overambitious, undertaking, but I am ideologically convinced that as evangelical scholars we need to break out of our specialized ghettoes and interact with each other, for our own sake as well as the health ofthe church for whom we write. Again, I hope those evangelical scholars who come from different disciplinary backgrounds will be charitable in recognizing the integration I have tried to achieve, but will now offer more rigorous contributions in the future, all with the aim of edifying God’s church worldwide.
Thirdly, as evangelicals we need to rehabilitate and reclaim the discipline of religious studies. As I argued at the end of chapter 3, scholars such as Gavin D’Costa have done us a great service in both questioning and then deconstructing the alleged ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ of much academic religious studies, by arguing for a legitimate ‘comparative theological’ reading of religion, or alternatively a ‘theological religious studies’, which is able (and in the best place) to incorporate both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ interpretations. D’Costa’s own Roman Catholic construction will not be suitable for us, so what we need to develop is a distinctively Reformed religious studies. It is interesting to note that in his Introduction to the Science of Missions J. H. Bavinck in his chapter on elenctics notes, ‘The peculiar object of elenctics is responsible for the fact that it not only cannot be thought of apart from dogmatics, but it is also closely connected with sciences which in part do not belong to the theological faculty’. He goes on to talk about the history of religion, the science of religion, the psychology of religion, phenomenology and finally the philosophy of religion. Once again, I think this is an undernourished area of evangelical study and research. To do this, though, we shall have to recognize the importance and legitimacy of the social sciences and how they can support theology in general and the theology of religions in particular. Moving back one stage further, we shall need to go back to basics by establishing methodological issues concerning interdisciplinarity and how this coheres with our commitment to sola Scriptura.
The above ‘to do’ list forms an ambitious agenda for the whole body of Christ and especially those called to be leaders and teachers. However, I believe it is a necessary agenda both for the church’s witness to the world and for the church’s discipleship of her people. Under God’s sovereignty, surrounded in prayer and in a bold humility we can have confidence in the power of the gospel to repossess and transform lives, cultures and, yes, religions. While there will always be challenges and costs in doing this, let us never forget the privilege of taking the wonderful, subversively fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ to the end of the earth. (pgs. 335-338)
By Daniel Strange
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