Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Giving Reason For The Hope IV

Challenges For The Apologetic Task In Malaysia

Although there has been laudable work done by organisations like Kairos Research Center and NECF Research Commission, the Malaysian church remains generally shrouded by an anti-intellectual mood that substantially hinder the development of a robust inquiring spirit so crucial for the apologetic task. As many denominations were established by British and American missionaries, the confluence of inherited dispensational-fundamentalist theology, Holiness spirituality (“Let go, Let God!”) and Pentecostal-experiential instincts coloured much of our spiritual ethos. As a result, there is a common emphasis on “the dangers of the world, the comforts of the separated piety, the centrality of evangelism, and an expectation of the End.” Other sociological mitigating circumstances could be cited like pragmatic, populist and “immediate result” activism so characteristic of the enterpreneurial Chinese immigrants’ mindset.

Unsurprisingly, Noll’s critique of the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ for an American setting is largely relevant here as well, posing a formidable barrier against the development of an intellectual witness and cultural mandate for many complex and current religious and sociopolitical issues facing the Malaysian church.

Also, in the minds of many Malay Muslims in Southeast Asia, there was no distinction between the arrival of Christian missionaries and the European powers which waged war, colonized their lands and controlled the regional spice trade. The Portugese, Spanish, Dutch and English colonizers fought among themselves for the spoils and cruelly exploited the local people so a deep sense of antipathy remained even today. Long after gaining national independence, the political elite in Indonesia and Malaysia considered Islam as closely linked to nationalism and regarded Christian mission as a social threat. Given such a sensitive post-colonial scenario, some Christians prefer to steer away from a robust apologetics because stressing propositional truth claims seem like a mask for Foucaultian power play and oppression of indigenous cultures.

Another significant challenge comes from a pluralistic mindset, common in Asian societies, which looked with disapproving suspicion, if not open hostility, at any religious faith that claims to be the exclusive truth. While we are obviously living in a society with diverse religious perspectives, religious pluralism is a particular perspective that these religions are equally valid in terms of access to truth and effectiveness in salvation. This view is illustrated beautifully by the ancient story of ten blind men trying to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body for the first time . As they announced their conflicting discoveries, a heated argument ensued. Awakened by the quarrel, the Rajah corrected all of them by saying, “The elephant is a huge animal and each of you touched a part. In order to know the whole truth about what the elephant looks like, you must put together all the parts!” The moral of the story is that no religion has privileged access to the whole truth. Each religious view is a partial experience of the same Reality from its own culturally conditioned perspective. Given such a cultural milieu, it seems politically incorrect to claim superiority for any particular religion.

Doing Apologetics In The Malaysian Context

Offering diagnosis without prescription makes for light work so let us explore some proposals on how the apologetic task may be carried out in the Malaysian context. In view of many contemporary challenges, Dr Ng Kam Weng urged the Malaysian church to take proactive steps to enhance resources and nurture promising young leaders while they are still in colleges. I heartily concur with his proposal for long-term and intentional programs to equip them with necessary tools to interact with Asian philosophies and religions in an engaging method and accessible language. While there has been a resurgence of apologetic works in the American context, most of the materials were produced in response to atheistic secularism and naturalism.

A typical strategy by classical apologists like William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler and J. P. Moreland would proceed from a defence for the existence of God through various theistic arguments, the possibility of miracles and historical reliability of Scriptures. The goal is to lay a realist, historical foundation for accepting the resurrection of Christ, a crucial ‘clincher’ for the vindication of Christ’s unique claim to Deity. The Malaysian church has definitely benefited from growing evangelical scholarship in defence of the historicity of the Gospels since Muslim apologists like Ahmad Deedat borrowed the tools of liberal biblical criticism in their attempt to show that the Gospels are internally inconsistent or textually corrupt. Such apologetics will continue as long as sensational challenges from The Da Vinci Code, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary and others flood the media.

However, more often than not, we encounter alternative religious systems which already took the existence of the supernatural or spiritual world for granted. In contrast, many Western Christians too quickly dismissed such worldviews as mere superstitions or demonic, neglecting their positive cultural elements and revealing their own captivity to Enlightenment assumptions. Though commonly used in Malaysia, classical apologetics could be unwieldy insofar as it requires extensive memory and grasp of historical or scientific data. Perhaps, the effectiveness of theistic arguments from design, morality, causality and others may be applicable for agnostics or atheists who have developed a synthesis with Buddhism. But what may work for a secular atheist may not work for a theistic Muslim or pantheistic Hindu. Asian Christians need to rethink our rhetorical approach as a series of three-step, logical arguments in favor of a more dialogical engagement, meal hospitality, posing questions that invite participation or self-discovery, story-telling that involves the imagination and listening with empathy. Many people, inundated by totalizing claims of rationality, increasingly yearn for spirituality in the context of authentic community. They also want to see the fruits of our belief in embodied living and compassion for the needy before examining their validity. Having been a layperson-practitioner in various settings, I am convinced that apologetic should be lived out artfully as much as it is argued rationally, in a trust-building faith community where Kingdom perspectives are demonstrated. We should avoid a false dichotomy between truth and grace by following Jesus Christ who personified both (John 1:17).

Now, let us evaluate another influential apologetic method called Reformed epistemology. Defended by philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Wolterstorff and others, it challenged the Enlightenment demand that everything we believe in must be supported by sufficient evidence. While some beliefs do require evidence, we cannot go on an infinite regress of proofs for every belief. Somewhere along the line, the buck stops at some properly basic beliefs which we intuitively know without inference from other beliefs. It is argued that evidences for God’s existence are not necessary for a rational faith even though such evidences may indeed exist. Echoing Calvin, belief in God emerges from an innate ‘sense of the divine’. Christians have epistemic permission to believe in God since such basic beliefs are the results of our cognitive faculties functioning successfully according to their design of producing true beliefs.

By probing hidden presuppositions behind the demand for evidences, I find Reformed epistemology helpful to deflect the burden of proof from resting solely on the believer’s shoulders. After all, how many church members in our midst could grasp such subtle philosophical nuances as found in the ontological argument? By rightly rejecting a self-defeating criteria for knowledge demanded by Cartesian foundationalism, a believer is not obligated to be a temporary agnostic or give up the faith at the pain of irrationality even if he has no access to any theistic proofs. It seems to be a workable strategy against the dominant naturalistic accounts of epistemology that Plantinga had to wrestle with. However, in a pluralistic context, it seems to open wide the door for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to claim ‘epistemic rights’ to their fundamental beliefs as properly basic as well.

While committed to the necessity of Holy Spirit’s inner witness to convict us of the truth, Harold Netland pointed out that various self-authenticating experiences that overcome any amount of contrary evidences could also be found in other religions. Our notions of what constitutes basic beliefs depend heavily on prior ontological and theological understanding of the nature of human beings. We cannot take these assumptions for granted especially if others do not share them. But if there is no neutral, universally rational foundation by which we could evaluate conflicting truth claims, on what basis do we privilege the Christian gospel? Is it merely one among the many we choose from due to the whims of history or culture? While postmodernism or pluralism may arguably provide a level playing field for all kinds of stories, a religious claim that has no referent beyond their respective ‘language games’ become trivial or subverted.

Influenced by Reformed epistemology, Stanley Grenz tried to answer this burning question by focusing on an ‘incarnational’ apologetics, which has impressed many emerging leaders today. He observed that the goal of all social traditions is to construct a well-ordered society. Instead of asking, “Which religion alone is true?” the question should be reformulated as, “Which religious vision provides the basis for community in the truest sense?” Although all religious traditions may contribute to societal cohesion, Grenz’s contention is that the gospel alone provides a more complete vision of the nature of community that all human religious traditions aspire to achieve since it embodies the highest understanding of who God actually is. The human search for communal relationship actually mirrors the Triune nature of the eternal God Himself as “plurality-in-unity”. The church is the visible embodiment of God’s universal purpose in the gospel to reconcile a diverse people and renew them in a gathered community as a sign of the age to come.

In the Asian context, where collective identity and relationship are stressed despite rapid erosion by modernistic individualism, I appreciate Grenz’s insights for an apologetic strategy integrally modeled in the church. However, as he himself has noted, various communities espouse different understandings of what constitutes true community. Without some common ground in our understanding of what “community” means, how could we then claim that the Christian story fulfills what they are actually seeking? And if such radically differing visions are ultimately incommensurable, it seems to undercut the claim that the gospel provides a “more” complete basis for community life in comparison. Ironically, Grenz’s proposals seem to make sense only if we do not overstate the divergence in our foundations of rationality, morality and community. This should not be surprising since different human cultures and languages do share a common humanity.

Without going back to Cartesian foundationalism, I find the structure of “incarnational” apologetics work best within a critical realist or chastened, modest, Reidian foundationalism. Again, Harold Netland is perceptive to point out that current discontent with positive apologetics owes more to the manner in which it is sometimes done and unrealistic expectations set by proponents.

Could a humble and realistic approach to positive apologetics be sustained? In my humble opinion, there is enough room in the apologetic task to draw on the strengths from different methodologies to construct a positive, cumulative case for Christian theism. Since the gospel provides the most comprehensively plausible, logically coherent and existentially satisfying explanation of the universe and our human experience, we could rejoice in the convergence of many apologetic streams. From the classical apologists, we drink in empirical evidences that demand a verdict. From the Reformed epistemologists, we learn to trust in the Spirit’s ability to produce genuine faith apart from arguments. From the presuppositionalists, we discover that unique features of human life make sense only when interpreted through a biblical outlook. With the incarnational apologists, we live out the practical demonstration of the faith in a living, ecclesical community.

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