Christianity and Pluralism (3): Easter and a Co-opted Christianity

Lesslie Newbigin, the inspiration for this series, has a great story about a time when he was a young Christian missionary in India. It really helped me to grasp this next topic. He recalls:

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.

Newbigin clarifies:

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.

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3 Responses to Christianity and Pluralism (3): Easter and a Co-opted Christianity

  1. Brian P. says:

    Easter doesn’t really make for a more satisfying plausibility structure. Life can be lived fully, generously and richly–in the compassionate service of others–without it, just fine.

  2. Daniel Baker says:

    I don’t think most of the secular world takes a positivist position that all truth must be scientifically verifiable. I do think that calling the secular view of mutually corroborated facts or perennial experience, faith, obfuscates the state of things and falsely relates it to true faith, like that which the resurrection requires. Whats more, the resurrection requires a whole chain of faiths, starting from scripture’s authority and ending in a massive social and political conspiracy to erase any traces of truth to Jesus’ divinity and resurrection. The resurrection can’t stand alone. It emerges from a very specific context and a very narrow and sectarian interpretation of Jewish prophecy.

    • kbrooksy says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate you taking the time to help me think through this more clearly. Of course, in the course of these brief posts I can’t lay my whole epistemology or theology of faith. Unfortunately, I can’t do that in a comment reply either. So for this and my response your post on the last post in this series, please forgive some assumed foundations, and limited working out of implications.

      First, whether or not “most of the secular world takes a positivist position” on truth is hardly determinable. Certainly Derrida, Foucault, et. al. have curtailed Carnap’s and Neurath’s influence in our culture to some degree. To what degree postmodernism has curtailed the influence of the positivists in the culture, I don’t claim to be an expert. All I know is that most of the people I talk to who self-define as “secular” usually say something like “I believe in science.” To the degree I am writing to positivists, I am writing to them, however many or few there are.

      Secondly, I appreciate your concern for the distinctness of “true faith,” but I have to admit I don’t know how you’re using the term. If you simply mean it as an epistemological category that you think is distinct from the acceptance of “mutually corroborated facts or perennial experience” which are based on something other than faith, then my reply to you would have to be much longer than I have time for. Suffice it to say that the way we corroborate facts, pick which ones are interesting and worthy of study, formulate hypotheses, interpret data, choose which studies get published in journals and which never see the light of day, all of this in done in the context of a plausibility structure that goes (mostly) unquestioned. It is accepted as a basic belief, the foundation of which one builds what they think they know. If we don’t want to call that faith, that’s fine, but I think it’s a lot closer to what Christians do with Christ than many people like to think.

      That being said, if you’re using the term to denote “true faith” that only the Holy Spirit can produce in a person’s heart, thereby changing not only their intellectual plausibility structure but also their affections and will, then I will absolutely accept the critique that such a use of the term makes it difficult to parse out the difference between that and a basic belief in empiricism. That being said, I am using the term because, whereas in the case of the Christian only the Holy Spirit can generate such faith in a believer’s heart, the result of the “faith” of the Christian and the “faith” of the positivist looks similar in this respect: they believe something without reasoning and without empirical evidence. And I think that is an epistemologically justified and warranted way of coming to believe.

      Finally, to your last point (and to allude to some of the above material) I believe that faith in the resurrection does not stem from a chain of faiths in Scripture, political conspiracies, etc. On my epistemological model, I believe that faith in the great things of the gospel (of which the resurrection is a part), while occasioned by something like the reading of Scripture, or hearing of a missionary’s words, or some sort of ecstatic vision, can only be produced by the Holy Spirit working in an individual’s heart. Faith in a chain of events is subject to the problem of dwindling probabilities. If you’re curious about how one could be so audacious as to claim the Holy Spirit as a foundation of an epistemology, or if you’re interested in the chain of faith being subject to dwindling probabilities, check out Al Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.

      I have always enjoyed our debates, buddy. Thanks for getting it going again.

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