Current Concerns for Christian Intellectual Witness

Description: NECF Malaysia Cross-Currents Consultations
        Author: Ng Kam Weng

Themes - Modernity and Resurgence Religion and clash of civilizations: Theology of culture and social engagement; Religion and Culture; Ecclesiology and cultural plurality; Creation and New Age Spirituality; Science and Religion


Adolf Hernack observed that the early church gained ascendancy because they not only out-loved their competitors; they also out-thought their critics. The early Christians reveled in the intellectual truth and lucidity of Christian revelation.

J.G. Machen who wrote, "We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here or there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the relentless force of logic, prevents Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion."

We must address the challenge of the cultured despisers of Christianity if Christian witness is to gain credibility:

  • Secure a through understanding of the modern world.
  • Identify crucial issues that must be addressed if we are to follow J.H. Bavinck to annex culture, to take every though captive in Christ.
  • Re-conceptualize the framework for Christian reflection and set priorities for the theological education. So often activism replace serious theological reflection when we act under the tyranny of the urgent. But in the absence of a distinct intellectual framework and with our inability to ferret out the critique the presuppositions of dominant thought patterns of the world, we end up merely responding to the agenda set by non-Christian elites and eventually conform to the spirit of the age.
  • Ensure that theology is both grounded in Biblical tradition and critically correlated with contextual realities. This demands, a fresh look at theological education and how we train Christian thinkers and pastors.

The authority of an intellectual is based on his ability to undertake objective, well-informed decisions. Likewise Christian intellectual witness demands competence. Given the narrow scope of education today and the non-Christian ethos in which it is proffered, Christians must go the third mile if they are to fulfill their vocation of thinking God's thoughts after him. It will do us well to remember the Christian ideals of attaining moral and intellectual virtues in higher education, "To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know and to digest, master, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object…. As intelligible as the cultivation of moral virtue" (J.H. Newman, The Idea of a University, p. 92-93).


1. Modernity's Subversion of Religion

Some preliminary questions concerning Modernity come to mind:

  • What is the ideology and worldview under girding Modernity that constitutes a challenge to the legitimization of religious faith and truth claims?
  • What are the institutional carriers which propel those social changes that generate tension between earthly concerns and a life oriented to transcendence? How can religious practice be integrative in the light of differentiation of institutions of modern societies?
  • How can religion encourage a political process that affirms recognition of cultural identity and difference of diverse social groupings while at the same time promote national harmony? How may the media play a responsible role in the moral and cultural development of society?

Modernity is a broad concept. For the purpose of this paper it is assumed to be a social and philosophical movement with the following characteristics:

  1. Epistemology; The autonomous self in judgment.
  2. Ethics: The imperial self that bows only to its self-created ethnical standards,
  3. Social structures: Differentiated and specialized institutions,
  4. Economics: Rationalization based on calculatibility, efficiency
  5. Bureaucracy: An iron-cage administration,
  6. Politics: Progress in democracy and social justice.

2. Processes of Modernity

Secularization - Secularization is the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. Here is the process whereby the church is losing its influence as a shaper of life and thought in the wider social order,
Privatization - Berger defines as follows:
Privatized religion is a matter of the "choice... or "preference of the individual or the nuclear family
Pluralization is the "process by which the number of options in the private sphere of modern society rapidly multiplies at all levels, especially at the level of world views, faith and ideologies.

3. Four Marks of Modernity

Moral Relativism
Autonomous Individualism
Narcissistic Hedonism
Reductive Naturalism

4. Religious Counter-currents to Modernity - Jihad Versus MacWorld

Samuel Huntington in his book, The clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order envisages future conflicts as occurring along fault lines dividing civilizations in general, and along the 'bloody border' of Islam in particular. He asserts that Islam prosecutes international aggression given its persistent belief in universal mission.

Huntington's brutally realistic reading of history suggest that leaders of countries that have widespread economic inequality and an overwhelming surplus of youth – what Huntington refer as, "youth bulge' – will cynically exploit widespread discontent by channeling youth towards aggression against other nations. In particular, international conflicts will arise from a confrontation with the West on one side and an alliance between Islamic and Sino Civilizations on the other. This bare theses is backed by an impressive array of historical evidence and socio-political analyses.

Critics have pointed out that Huntington failed to recognize other modes of encounter that range from peaceful co-existence to interpenetration of cultures. Other critics argue that conflict actually result from geo-political interests and that it is only subsequently that religious and civilization sentiments are co-opted to legitimize the conflicts. Huntington's rhetoric about the 'Clash of Civilizations' therefore put the cart before the horse. That is to say, it is geopolitical conflicts that exploit religion rather than civilizational differences that thrust communities into conflict.

5. Civilization Dialog

The challenge for all the religious communities, especially Islam, is to demonstrate that it has within itself the ethical resources to achieve a genuine common vision. Several implications arise in terms of how dialogue may be achieved in this country. First, dialogue is impossible if any one party (be it traditional Islam or Christianity) maintains an unquestioned absolutism about its position. The Christians is nevertheless encouraged by new openness among those Muslims who have courageously suggested that the Syariah is historically contingent and that the 'Gates to knowledge' be reopened through Ijtihad. There is then room for discussion. However, some caution is in place since openness to Ijtihad is not itself is not itself sufficient. The reason is that unless a procedure for Ijtihad is concretely outlined, Ijtihad merely means that you listen to my interpretation. How Islam will overcome this is a matter that should be resolved internally by its leaders.

We refer to case studies by Leslie Browne (The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia) and William G. Young (Patriarch, Shah and Caliph). In particular, Young pointed out how the internal divisions within the Church under Islam in Persia resulted in the Christian antagonists appealing to the state leaders to arbitrate their internal disputes. In the process they became beholden to the sate and opened themselves to manipulation. Of course, this was consistent with the Persian Church's acceptance of itself as a protected minority, a millet. But in the process the Church gained short-term peace only to be decimated by an inexorable process of long-term assimilation. The church leaders had become small in fighting over parochial matters. Needless to say, the Great Commission was lost in the process. Finally, the church should resolve to act regardless of the presence or absence of backing from the state. That way it will not expect favors from the government nor will it become beholden to it. On the contrary, the credibility of our witness is proportional to our ability to contribute sacrificially to social life out of goodwill.

This leads to the need for the creation of social space that will lend plausibility to the moral discourse of the church. How should the life of the Church as a community take shape such that it can sustain an independent moral discourse? What moral culture does it express as an alternative that unmasks the distorted values of hegemony? Can the Church delay in setting up its own information channels to ensure that its members are correctly informed on issues of human rights, freedom and social responsibility. How can the church be the "responsible society"?

6. Resurgence of Asian Religions

Islamic and Buddhist intellectuals have gone beyond the defensive posture forced upon them for the last two centuries. Their scholars have regained confidence after retrieving their intellectual heritage, which ironically was made possible by Christian missionary-scholars who undertook the laborious task of translating the classical religious texts. Their apologetics have assumed new sophistication with a new breed of scholars who are at home with both Western and Eastern philosophies. Buddhist scholars offer sharp critiques of the personal theism of Christianity. Islamic apologists have been quick to exploit the results of destructive liberal critical scholarship to undermine the credibility of the Christian message. The confidence of these scholars must surely be strengthened by awareness that karma-cola and Buddhist Nirvana have found enthusiastic response from spiritually famished Americans in Western USA.

Christian scholars should not overlook the long-term programs which are implemented by strategic Islamic intellectual enterprise such as the World Conference on Islamic Education in Mecca in 1977. among the significant decisions adopted at the Conference were: Systematic initiatives to islamicize the National Education Systems. The fundamental framework for this program to re-orientate education around Islamic values is found in the work plan. The International Institute of Islamic Thought (Philadelphia) and the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) Kuala Lumpur coordinated the implementation of this decision,. New international Islamicize the academic disciplines and the eventual production of Islamic oriented university texts suggest works of high academic quality. We have no such equivalent from Christian scholars in the Third World.

The point is, Islam approaches inter-religious encounters as a contestation of worldviews backed by forceful political power. In a move to gain the initiative in this debate, Islamic writers frequently suggest that while Islam is a comprehensive and well thought out way of life, Christianity is merely a perverse form of Western individualism that can only undermine the cohesion of Asian societies. (As a side remark I need to suggest that the Christian answer to Islamic da'wah must be a mission that emphasizes the centrality of the Kingdom of God. We find numerous publications which seek to portray Islam as a comprehensive and integrated way of life centred around the one God (tawhid) and the establishment of public institutions to project Islamic practices. Da'wah is nothing less than the re-orientation of the whole of society around God. As Syed H. Nasr explains, it is not divine laws that must be revised to suit changing societies.

If Islam has not hesitated to project political power in its struggle for dominance in a pluralistic society, Buddhism (with the exception of Sri Lanka) often attracts people who are disillusioned with the empty promises of politics as well as the abuse of power in bureaucratic tyranny. In reaction to the historical pattern of exploitation of institutionalized religion by politicians, many Buddhists argue that truth is personal rather than social. Truth is a personal construct built on a series of one's psychic experiences (often in the context of meditation). Truth and reality in the final analysis are impersonal, reflecting an ever-changing universal flux. Authentic existence or liberation from the world of illusion is individual centred.

The consequence is a rejection of prepositional truth so dearly beloved by Evangelicals. In common with post-modem nihilism, Buddhism precludes truth claims of realism. The psychic self and the body function as one's own private aesthetic project. Truth is processed experientially, form the heart, which is experientially and emotionally. Spiritual truth is not so much analyzed in abstraction. It should be embodied in concrete role models often exemplified by gurus.

The challenge then to Christian mission is how ensure that prepositional and realistic truth claims are concretized and personally embodied. To be sure, Christians question the ideals of salvation that are based on the isolated individual with its subjective, if not nihilistic, tendencies. One doubts too whether the tendency among followers of experiential and mystical spirituality to abandon responsibilities in the public square will not lead to choose between the individual and the community. On the one hand, communities of truth and inclusive justice emerge from 'enlarged authentic selves'. Conversely, without authentic relationships in a community there can be no flourishing of the individual.

7. Apologetic and Modern Knowledge

Recent years have seen the emergence of many scientists who straddle comfortable between The Two Cultures (C.P. Snow). I have in mind Paul Davis, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkings, Stephen J. Gould and Daniel Dennett amongst others. Their writings demonstrate modern science as a comprehensive and self-sufficient explanatory paradigm of life and the universe that does not need to appeal to the creator.

Quantum cosmology has dominated public interest, but one should not miss the fact that the real scientific challenge confronting Christian faith is in the field of evolutionary sociobiology and cognitive science. The absence of Christian participation is sadly evident. Hopefully this lacuna will be addressed by new initiatives from Templeton Foundation and new centers of science and theology established in Berkeley University and Chicago University.

Philosophy has become an exciting discipline nowadays with active participants from a new breed of philosophers whose analytical expertise is recognized by their professional peers. One thinks of Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga and the Society of Christian Philosophers, and Catholic schools of Thomism and Phenomenology.

However, the renewed vigor of philosophy has triggered old tensions between theologians and philosophers. New disputes have emerged in debates over Open Theism, Omniscience and middle knowledge, divine eternity and temporality and dualism/monism of the human soul and the mergence of mind. The disputes can be both disconcerting and exciting.


The above discussion represents only a preliminary engagement with the challenge of resurgent Islam and Buddhism. Further long-term engagement address includes the following concerns.

1. Mission and Intellectual Competence

Given the sophistication of polemics mounted against Christianity we can no longer rest content on the simple preaching of the gospel. This calls for a systematic and sustained effort to train Christian thinkers and activists who can defend the integrity of the Bible, the plausibility of the Christian worldview, and demonstrate Christianity as a holistic way of life in cross-cultural apologetics.

2. Mission and the Personal Fulfillment

The goal of personal fulfillment has always been paramount among many religious seekers in Asia. The validity of such a quest is not in question. After all, Christ promised abundant life to his disciples. The issue is the context for the quest of fulfillment. Fulfillment in Buddhism is attainment of freedom from the wheel of life (Samsara). In contrast to, Christianity insists that personal fulfillment arises from the context of meaningful relationships. Christianity demands personal salvation being worked out in the context of loving service in a community. In Christ's words, "By this all men shall know you are my disciples, if you have love one for another."

3. Mission and Building Consensus in Community

There have been increasing conflicts following the post-cold war due to resurgent ethnic-nationalism. In the past, many Christian missions have chosen to ignore the imperative to be peacemakers and to promote peace and harmony for fear that it would detract them from the paramount task of evangelism. We ought to recall the balance declaration of Laussanne that evangelism are good works collectively constitute holistic mission.


1. Enhancing Resources

Existing seminaries are correct in concentrating on training of pastors. But we need to set up Research Institutes and centres for Advanced Mission Studies that specialize in inter-religious encounters and cross-cultural studies. We need to develop doctoral programs at three regional levels. E.g., North East Asia, Sub-continent Asia. Teaching should be done primarily by thinkers from the respective regions although doctoral candidates are encouraged to spend a year in an established Western university. The absence of adequate libraries is still keenly felt. More theological resources need to be made available through the Internet.

2. Develop Scholars' Network To Work On Areas Of Cultural And Religious Apologetics

The end product of such scholar' networks and consultations will be seminal works and resource handbooks for seminary teachers. The availability of theological materials that are rooted in cultural contexts has been a desideratum for a long time. We need to bring together leaders to formulate strategies for social engagement and Christian annexation and repossession of culture of Christ. Christian scholars must develop in-depth cultural analysis and sophisticated critiques of Asian philosophies

3. Leadership Development

It is true that many Christian leaders in the third world do not have enough time to acquire the pre-requisite skills and knowledge adequate to confront the best scholars from the other religions. Hence, it is vital that we begin early to equip younger Christians for such a demanding task. In fact, young Christians are often put on the defensive while undergoing the indoctrination process under their national education system. Christian youths are themselves increasingly vulnerable to conversion to resurgent Asian spirituality.

Unlike their Western counterparts who benefit from the liberal arts program in their general education. Asian Christians are often denied opportunities to reflect on their Christian intellectual heritage, especially if the national education system favours another religion. Consequently many Christian begin serious reflection on their philosophical and theological heritage only when they go to the seminaries. Ironically, they learn about the Asian religion form 'experienced missionaries' who have returned to the West. Asian churches that seek to produce Christian thinkers who can match their local religious counterparts are obviously handicapped by such late academic beginnings. It is urgent that we identify promising young leaders and nurture them with supplementary education while they are still in colleges. Long-term programs must be devised to enhance their competence in Asian philosophies and religions.


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