Christianity and Pluralism (3): Easter and a Co-opted Christianity
April 11, 2012 3 Comments
When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels. In the great hall of the monastery, as in all the premises of the Ramakrishna Mission, there is a gallery of portraits of the great religious teachers of humankind. Among them, of course, is a portrait of Jesus. Each year on Christmas Day worship was offered before this picture. Jesus was honored, worshipped, as one of the many manifestations of deity in the course of human history. To me, as a foreign missionary, it was obvious that this was not a step toward the conversion of India. It was the co-option of Jesus into the Hindu worldview. Jesus had become just one figure in the endless cycle of karma and samsara, the wheel of being in which we are all caught up. He had been domesticated into the Hindu worldview. That view remained unchallenged. (GPS, 3)
Every culture has a set of beliefs its members take for granted. Newbigin calls this its plausibility structure. In cultures rooted in Confucianism, the respect of elders is a foundational social reality and practically unquestioned moral code. As Newbigin mentioned, a Hindu worldview accepts as basic a cyclical view of human history governed by forces like karma. What about the West? What is one of the beliefswetake for granted? We can see a hint of it in Newbigin’s own reflection on his experience in India:
It was only slowly, through many experiences, that I began to see that something of this domestication had taken place in my own Christianity, that I too had been more ready to seek a “reasonable Christianity,” a Christianity that could be defended on the terms of my whole intellectual formation as a twentieth-century Englishman, rather than something which placed my whole intellectual formation under a new and critical light. I, too, had been guilty of domesticating the gospel. (GPS, 3)
The plausibility structure of the contemporary westerner, the core beliefs that we regularly submit to without question, goes something like this: We come to know the truth through scientific investigation and reason. This we call fact. It can be verified. Everything we believe that doesn’t fit into the category of fact–anything not verifiable by physics, biology, modern history, the social sciences, etc. and untested by reason–these we call values. Facts are a matter of truth and falsehood. Values are a matter of opinion. (Never mind that this belief, “All truth must be verifiable” is not itself a scientifically verifiable statement. We just put our faith in it.)
How does this generate the pluralistic culture we’ve been discussing these last two days? Well, the ‘facts’ are what we can all believe publicly. The values–beliefs like “Jesus is God’s Son,” or “God is love,” or “Humans are in need of salvation”–those are private matters of personal opinion. It’s fine that you believe them, but don’t go pushing them on anyone else. On the other hand, if you want to dispute Einstein’s theory general relativity….WATCH OUT. You just might get a cold, hard fact thrown at you.
Now, Christians are notoriously bad at defending Christianity using the assumptions of the reigning plausibility structure. We in the West put the picture of Jesus up in the great hall of psychology in the Science Mission instead of the monastery.
That’s why you get theologians who say things like, “Since we know that people don’t rise from the dead (that’s a scientific fact), Easter is best explained by visions the disciples had of Jesus during their distress over his death.” But this is just another way of domesticating the Christian view of the resurrection, of reining it in so that it sits calmly in the corral of naturalism, leaving us and our plausibility structure undisturbed.
The thing is…the resurrection of Jesus Christ generates an entirely new plausibility structure.
It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point….What happened on that day is, according to the Christian tradition, only to be understood by analogy with what happened on the day the cosmos came into being. It is a boundary event….
But, and this is the whole point, accepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a wholly new way of understanding our human experience, a way which–in the long run–makes more sense of human experience as a whole than does the reigning plausibility structure. (GPS, 11-12)
I know this stuff is tough sledding, but I suppose this is all another way of saying that believing in an plausibility structure is simply a matter of faith. It is the foundation of all your reasoning…of how you reason. Human beings are the types of things that need plausibility structures to make sense of the world. But when we see these core beliefs for what they are — matters of faith, beliefs that people can choose to put their faith in or not — then they are on a par with the core beliefs generated by the groundbreaking event of Easter.
Easter, on its own terms, refuses to be co-opted into any other plausibility structure. Does your structure say death is the end for humans? Easter challenges that. Does your structure say Jesus was just another neat prophet dude? Easter challenges that. Does your structure say that God is far off, that he never breaks into history to change something in a big way? Easter challenges that.
Try out letting Easter stand on its own, as its own plausibility structure, and ask yourself if it is not a more satisfying worldview than the one you’ve got.