Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2014

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth noted that “joy is really the simplest form of gratitude” and how common the theme of joy and celebration is in the Bible: “It is now genuine, earthly, human joy; the joy of the harvest, wedding, festival and victory; the joy not only of the inner but also the outer man; the joy in which one may and must drink wine as well as eat bread, sing and play as well as speak, dance as well as pray.”

Barth was not denying that sorrow, anger, doubt and pain all have their legitimate place in the Christian life. Moreover, depression and mental illness have been the experience of some of the Church’s greatest saints. But “the affirmation of ordinary life” (to use the words of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) re-discovered in the time of the European Reformations, and contrasted with a medieval world-denying spirituality, tears down the sacred-secular divide and plunges Christians into the depths of bodily life and cultural creation.

If the heirs of Calvin have not often been noted for their joy, they have been responsible for deep-seated cultural and political transformations in Western societies. It is to one such heir of the Calvinist Reformation, the Dutch politician Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) that we owe the grand and famous dictum: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not say ‘Mine!’”

Kuyper popularized the idea of a uniquely “Christian worldview”. Since Christians have fundamentally different views of reality and of humanness from non-Christians, and thus see the “world” through different “lenses”, they should create a uniquely Christian scholarship in their intellectual endeavours. A distinctive “Christian biology” no less than a distinctive “Christian philosophy” or “Christian economics”.

I have never been persuaded by this. It seems to ignore what Kuyper elsewhere recognised as God’s common grace (another Calvinist emphasis) – that all people everywhere, Christian and non-Christian, share in the Creator’s creational blessings and creative gifts. Moreover we share a life largely in common with others, responding to common needs and challenges. The Christian scholar aims in her scholarship, not so much to be distinct as to be faithful to Christ. If, in her faithful scholarship, she is led to say things that are truly distinctive, well and good. But, if not, that may not necessarily reflect a lack of Christian sensibility.

Often Christian scholarship will gladly endorse what others may have been saying as true or right or just; while also exposing, illuminating, challenging and judging beliefs and practices that distort or conceal important aspects of reality. The world being what it is, and humans being what we are, we should expect much overlap, and even be prepared to learn from others on the way.

In a recent biography of Kuyper, the historian James Bratt points out that Kuyper was, like the rest of us, formed by the social and cultural prejudices of his day. He spoke blithely of “the superiority of Western civilization” and indulged in derogatory comments about African peoples. Even as Prime Minister he never questioned the right of the Netherlands to be colonial masters in Indonesia, although he did promote a more paternalistic and ethically responsible form of colonial government than his predecessors. Although difficult to prove, Kuyper’s “worldview” approach could so easily be co-opted in the service of the doctrine of “separate development” of Dutch settlers and native Africans in South Africa.

Pick up a book claiming to describe “the Christian worldview” and it will quickly be obvious where the author lives and to which socio-cultural group he belongs. Since the majority of these come from a suburban, middle-American context, it is not surprising to find the American Dream insinuating itself into “the Christian worldview”. One finds relatively few Kuyperite “worldview” enthusiasts joining the Occupying movement, exposing the hypocrisies of immigration policy or campaigning against the use of drones.

Does a Nepali Christian farmer see the same “world” as a Christian banker in Tokyo? How about a Christian corporate lawyer on Wall Street and a Christian factory worker in Detroit?

Worldviews (or interpretive frameworks) function as “operational maps”. Our deepest operational beliefs are not necessarily those we state, but those we think we have no need to state- because we take them to be universal. The Church historian Andrew Walls points out that while God as Creator may be acknowledged by all African Christians, in their “operational religion” far more attention is paid to territorial divinities who control the land, or to ancestors who maintain the family and the clan, or to intermediary beings of some kind than to God. On their worldview maps, therefore, God appears relatively small, the other entities significantly larger.

I have never seen the place of ancestors (“the cloud of witnesses”, Hebrews 12:1) ever discussed in teaching about “the Christian worldview” in Western church or seminary circles. Nor the centrality of economic justice, hospitality to outsiders and ethnic reconciliation.

Clearly Christians whose “worldview” has been shaped by one context will have a somewhat different operational map of reality from Christians whose worldview has been shaped within another. There is no one single Christian worldview, but a variety- all changing and growing even as they share some “family resemblances” that enable them to be identified as Christian. At the same time, Walls observes that “Christian worldviews may have important elements in common with non-Christian worldviews of the cultures from which they come- features that will differ from those on the worldview maps of their fellow Christians of another cultural background.” And I would add “social and historical background.”

Hence the need to converse across our differences and divisions.


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