Monday, April 27, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Religion and Culture

The TSF statement is frequently muddled where it seeks to establish a position on religion and culture.
Throughout the TSF statement the following terms are employed: ‘faith’, ‘faith system’, ‘worldview’, ‘religion,’ and ‘spirituality.’ Yet none of these terms is defined or distinguished from one another. This would not be such a big problem if it was a piece of popular writing. But this is a statement which the group has been working on for four years.  
The result is that it leaves a large number of affirmations and denials ambiguous or even incomprehensible.
Perhaps we are to understand them to be synonyms. If so, then why, for instance, is faith distinguished from religion in the following?
4e) We deny that the Christian faith and religion are purely human constructs.
Despite this lack of definition, religion is supposed to be connected to culture. Hence:
90a) We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former.
But this is incoherent: how can two phenomena be interdependent with only one informing the other? 
Likewise, the following:
90d) We deny the existence of any human culture that functions disconnected from or uninfluenced by human religious thought and expression or by the spiritual forces of darkness.
However, if culture is the expression of religion the denial is meaningless: they are saying that ‘religion externalised’ (their definition of culture) cannot be disconnected from ‘religious expression’. 
Moreover, what are we to make of the following denial?
6f) We deny that non-Christian religions and worldviews also offer ways of salvation.
Is this a denial of the phenomenon (the offer) or a denial of the claim (salvation)? Many religious traditions offerways of salvation. This is surely undeniable. So maybe they mean that people cannot receive salvation by those ways. But they have already said that here:
6d) We deny that the adherents of any non-Christian religions and worldviews can receive salvation, except through faith in Christ alone.
If this is so, 6f is redundant.
But 6d is itself problematic: the way it reads, one might be forgiven for thinking that adherents of ‘non-Christian religions’ can receive salvation through faith in Christ alone, while they remain adherents.
Section 6 has, in fact, multiple intractable issues that arise because of a lack of precision in the language. 6a tells us that the ‘practice of false religions’ makes unbelievers ‘blind to saving knowledge’. 6b is in reference to someone who ‘holds a false … religion’. So, we have people adhering to, holding to, and practising false religions. But with no definition of religion, we are left wondering just what it is to which people are holding or adhering.
So, what is the way forward? Let us stop trying to divide the world into neatly distinct religious mega-communities. It is a figment of the imagination. It does not reflect the reality. 
Bernard Adeney puts it like this: “The very word religion is problematic, since it groups together the ways diverse cultures understand and interact with ‘the real’ as if such ways had certain common characteristics. In fact, different cultures construe what is real in radically different ways.” “The category of religion,” Adeney continues, “reflects the dichotomizing tendency of Western thought to separate the spiritual from the material world. ‘Facts’ and ‘values’ are considered unrelated” (Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World, 1995: 173).
The problem throughout the TSF statement is that an Enlightenment, essentialist construction of world religions has been adopted uncritically. The simple fact is that the religions as they are experienced ‘on the ground’ (as opposed to the way they are described in theological statements) are not nearly so neat and tidy that one can demark true religion (Christianity) from false (everything else – all the other ‘isms’) as the TSF wants to do.
This is not the first time I have argued the inadequacy of this approach.

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