Monthly Archives: September 2016

Paganising Christianity

September 2016 Pulse

The unprecedented emergence of religious fundamentalism and fervour across the globe in the final decades of the last century has led to the demise of the so-called secularisation theory proposed by philosophers and sociologists in the 1960s. Instead of being made obsolete by the seemingly unstoppable advance of secularism, the religions are experiencing something of a revival.

This phenomenal “re-sacralisation” has brought to the surface spiritual sensibilities or predilections that are best described as “neo-pagan”. In her insightful book, New Age and Neo-pagan Religions in America, Sarah Pike helpfully characterised neo-pagan beliefs and practices as eclectic and inclusive, “traditional” and inventive, embracing both old and new.

This new religiosity is nourished and energised in different ways by a confluence of diverse (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) cultural forces that are at work in our world: postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, relativism, anti-authoritarianism, secularism, panpsychism (all things have consciousness) and many others.

Unfortunately, this new syncretism has infiltrated the Christian church, resulting in the creation of “bastard faiths”, a term coined by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The poisonous commingling of neo-pagan occultism, secularism and Christianity has given birth to such profound and serious distortions that the Gospel of Christ itself is undermined, resulting in what the Apostle Paul has called “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Examples of the miscegenation (or inter-breeding) of Christianity with neo-pagan elements are not difficult to find.

Take the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel”. Unknown to many, this unorthodox teaching is in fact a toxic blend of Christianity and New Thought Metaphysics.

Kenneth Hagin – the father of the “movement” – was greatly influenced by the Pentecostal preacher E. W. Kenyon, who in turn drew heavily from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), the alleged founder of New Thought.

Quimby taught that sickness and suffering originate from the mind, and that they are the result of incorrect thinking. He believed that we could eradicate suffering by creating a new reality through positive visualisation and positive confession.

Hagin and the health and prosperity teachers simply “baptised” this New Thought doctrine with their distorted concept of faith. Following Kenyon’s dictum, “What I confess, I possess”, they fused their understanding of faith with positive confession.

Another example of this deadly syncretism is found in the teachings and practices of the self-styled apostles and prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). The most prominent leaders of this movement include Bill Johnson, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Patricia King and Che Ahn.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and ‘grave-sucking’ (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

While some of these preachers introduce these teachings and practices covertly to their unsuspecting followers, others promote them quite openly.

For example, in his 2006 book Dreaming with God, Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, Redding, asserts that it is mistaken to think that New Age practices like clairaudience (the ability to perceive sounds or words from outside sources in the spirit world) are from the devil. According to Johnson, they are “tools that God has given us for success in life and ministry”.

In similar vein, Jonathan Welton argues in an essay in The Physics of Heaven (2012) that occult practices like auras and clairvoyance (gaining information through extrasensory perception) are actually God’s gifts to the Church that the practitioners of the New Age have stolen. The Church must therefore reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

Welton writes: “I have found throughout Scripture at least 75 examples of things that the New Age has counterfeited, such as having a spirit guide, trances, meditation, auras, power objects, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and more.”

“Every time a counterfeit shows up”, he continues, “take it as the Lord presenting you with an opportunity to reclaim … the Church’s stolen property.”

About two millennia ago, in a letter addressed to a Church besieged by heresy, the Apostle Paul warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

In the wake of this new religiosity, the Church of today must take this warning from Scripture with complete seriousness.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

The Pneumatological Perspective to Inter-faith Dialogue

September 2016 Feature Article

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Holy Spirit acts not only in the Church but also outside it, and above all, in other religions.

The Council while defending the unique saving work of Jesus Christ, recognizes the universal salvific will of God. This means that Jesus wants to save all of humanity and indeed Scripture says that the whole of creation longs for this redemption (Rom 8:22).

Although the Council spoke of the Spirit’s action outside the boundaries of the Church and in all things that are good and true, it was Pope John Paul II who went further by recognizing the activity of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian religions.

Pope John Paul II never suggested that salvation could be found in non-Christian religions. He merely pondered on questions like: How does God work in the lives of peoples of different religions? How does the saving activity of Jesus effectively extend to those who have not professed faith in Him?

In fact, it was Pope John Paul II who vigorously took up the direction of the Council in expanding on the theme of interfaith dialogue in his writings, in line with his firm belief that the Holy Spirit also guides non-believers and the activities of non-Christian religions.

The document, Presence and Action of the Holy Spirit in the World and in other Religions issued by the Vatican’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, invites Christians to reflect on the presence and action of the Spirit not just in the Church but in other religions, and in fact, the whole world. It says that all humanity live under the action of the Holy Spirit, which in “these last days has been given to all humankind” (Acts 2:17).

Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind. No one can control the Spirit or monopolize Him. The Holy Spirit like the wind blows wherever it pleases (Jn 3:8). In the Psalms, one is often told that the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole earth (Ps 139). Galatians 3: 1-5 and Acts of the Apostles 2:17-21 remind us that the Spirit has been given to all humankind.

These verses are not exhaustive of scriptural references to the Spirit’s action upon the entire world and on all of humanity.

Some theologians refer to this mode of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the whole of creation as the ordinary presence of God in creation. They argue that it would be meaningless to discuss the extraordinary presence of the Holy Spirit in believers without first accepting His ordinary presence in all creation.

This discussion is termed by theologians as the presence of the Holy Spirit in ‘its universality and its particularity’. It recognizes God’s presence and activity in the Church and beyond it. It recognizes all of history as salvation history since it is the same Spirit who is at work among all peoples and whose presence fills the whole earth.

Therefore, there is a need for a greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s activity and presence in the world.

The Holy Spirit can touch, empower and inspire anyone He chooses. It is clear by reason and revelation that the person who is open to life, truth, wisdom, goodness, holiness and desires such things in his or her heart, is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit, who is Life, Truth, Wisdom, Goodness and Holiness itself.

God is not just the God of the baptized. He is the Father of all and it is from Him that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name (Eph 3:14-15). In fact, Ephesians 4:6 continue to say, “There is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all.”

Pope John Paul II in a general audience on 16th Oct 1985 said, “The fatherhood [of God] does not regard only the chosen people. It reaches every person and surpasses the bonds existing with earthly parents.”

Theologians like Gavin D’Costa have concurred on this point by stressing the universal presence of the Spirit in all human culture. D’Costa sees God as the God of all who fills, sustains and saves the world with His life-giving Spirit. He writes, “The riches of the mystery of God disclosed by the Spirit are measured and discerned by their conformity to and illumination of Christ, who is the normative criterion.”

Clark H. Pinnock in an article entitled, Religious Pluralism: A Turn to the Holy Spirit, explains D’Costa by saying that “while the Spirit reaches beyond Jesus in extent, it does not go beyond Jesus in content.”

Jacques Dupuis says that Christians do not have a monopoly over all truth. Although he believes that the fullness of Revelation comes in the Person of Jesus Christ, in terms of quantity, it does not exhaust the divine mystery. Dupuis says although the fullness of revelation comes in Jesus, we still need to relate this to what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in the world.

Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jurgen Moltmann both talk about a universal pneumatology. Both see the Spirit as necessary not just for redemption but for sustenance.

Moltmann in his book, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, writes, “In both Catholic and Protestant theology, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of redemption.”

He continues, “Thus, the redemptive Spirit is cut off from bodily life and the life of nature. It makes people turn away from this world and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit a power that is different from the divine energy of life which according to the Old Testament interpenetrates all the living.”

Moltmann sees the Holy Spirit meeting people not only in religious spheres but in secular events and even in the most mundane activities of life. Nothing is untouched by the finger of God, not even non-Christian religions. Theologians call this action of the Holy Spirit, ‘prevenient grace’.

Prevenient grace is a theological concept that has its origin in St. Augustine. For him, it is the divine grace that precedes any human actions. Prevenient grace is God drawing people to Himself prior to any human decision.

Thomas A. Langford in his book, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition, discusses the position of John Wesley’s prevenient grace. In Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace, God offers every person the opportunity to be saved, although the ‘how’ is known only to God. Wesley recognizes that everyone is provided with prevenient grace to a larger or lesser extent. This is the activity of the Spirit upon the hearts of each human person.

It is this prevenient grace that produces what is good and positive even in non-Christian religions. Prevenient grace is the work of the Holy Spirit which he gives freely to those who are opened to his goodness, Christians and non-Christians alike.


Rev Fr James Yeo

Rev. Fr. James Yeo is currently the rector of the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore.

 

The Image of the Invisible God

The most unique and radical claim of the Christian Faith is not that God has revealed himself, but that he has done so by becoming a human being.

The incarnation is the most central truth of the Christian Faith. The eternal Son of God took up human flesh and became ‘like his brothers in every respect’ not only to ‘make propitiation for the sins of his people’ (Hebrews 2:17) but also to reveal the very being of the triune God to humankind.

The Bible everywhere speaks of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son now incarnate, as the supreme revelation of God. Thus, the author of Hebrews could write: ‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, who he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world’ (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Hebrews continues to proclaim the Son as the ‘radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3). Paul, writing to the Christians at Colossae, could declare that the incarnate Son is ‘the image (Greek: ikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). And in John 14:9, Jesus claimed that ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.

In the person of Jesus Christ, the event of God’s self-disclosure occurs fully and supremely. In the life, speech and acts of Jesus are revealed the very character and purposes of God. As Millard Erickson has clearly put it: ‘The pinnacle of God’s acts is to be found in the life of Jesus. His miracles, death and resurrection are redemptive history in its most condensed and concentrated form’.

Only the second person of the triune Godhead, who is with God and is God from all eternity, can reveal God to us. Thus, the consensus of the Patristic theologians that can be traced to Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 125-202): that God can only be known through God.

To be sure, God’s revelation of himself in Christ comes in a mediated form, through the humanity of the incarnate Son. It is important to note that God has not revealed himself in humanity per se, but through the humanity united to Christ, the divine Son (Latin: humanitas Christi). In the incarnation, God has revealed himself through a medium that is not alien to us.

The Reformers recognise that in order for God to reveal himself to human beings he must in some ways accommodate or condescend himself to the ways of human knowing. According to a number of Reformed theologians like David Wright, Timothy George and Edward Dowey, the incarnation is God’s accommodating act par excellence.

But it was the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner who articulated this with great insight and eloquence. In a 1966 essay entitled ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ Rahner writes: ‘The Logos, the Son of the Father, is truly, in his humanity as such, the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in this Son, to the world – revelatory, because the symbol renders present what is revealed’.

Using different terminology, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth makes the same point when he maintains that the incarnate Christ is the ‘sacramental reality of [God’s] revelation’, the ‘first sacrament, the foundation of everything that God instituted and used in his revelation as a secondary objectivity before and after the epiphany of Jesus Christ’.

To say that God’s self-disclosure is found supremely in Christ is not to deny his universal revelation in creation. Paul is unequivocal that God has revealed himself in the created order when he writes that the ‘invisible nature’ of the Creator is clearly perceived ‘in the things that have been made’ (Romans 1:20).

Neither does it diminish the way in which God revealed himself in his dealings with Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.

In fact, if Christ is indeed the supreme revelation of God, then in him all the other moments of God’s self-disclosure becomes clearer and more comprehensible. In him all the manifestations of God – past, present and future – are clarified. And in him God’s dealings with Israel becomes more understandable and meaningful.

Christ is the summit of God’s revelation.

It is precisely because in him is to be found ‘all the riches of full assurance of understanding and knowledge of God’s mystery’ (Colossians2: 2-3) that Christ can be said to be the ‘exegesis of God’ (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

In the incarnation of the Son, we also see the profound relationship between revelation and salvation. Insofar as the second person of the Godhead is Word, his incarnation is the revelation of God. But even as he comes as Word to reveal the love of God, he also comes as Son to reconcile us to the Father.

In Jesus Christ we not only come to know God, but we are also brought into communion with him by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

The great Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance explains:

‘In this act of condescension God comes as God the Son and God the Word. He comes as God the Son to enter our rebellious estate in order to effect reconciliation by living out his life of filial obedience where we are disobedient, and he comes as God the Word to enter into our darkness and blindness in order to effect revelation by manifesting the love of God and by achieving from within humanity faithful appropriation of divine revelation’.

Insofar as these are the works of the incarnate Son of God, they must be seen not as two acts but as one act: revelation is part of reconciliation, and reconciliation is part of revelation.

In Jesus Christ is revealed the loving God who saves human beings from sin and death. Thus, we could indeed say (together with Paul) that in the face of Jesus Christ we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

 

 

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.