While the term “Post-Christian” is used to describe the current intellectual and moral state of the European society (it’s also apt for the American society, even though some of our brothers and sisters in America still believe otherwise), it has been rarely used to characterize the growing Asian nations such as India. This is primarily due to the fact that these Asian nations have been pluralistic in terms of their religious identity since long past.
But despite the religious conservatism that underlies the Indian society as a whole, the trends attuned to a more liberal and secular framework, especially in the urban centres, has made sure that the discussion about the relevance of Christianity in a post-Christian world is an important discussion for India as well. This change can be evidently seen in the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of India decriminalizing homosexuality and abolishing a major portion of the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a 150-year-old law often touted as archaic and discriminatory in nature. While the society still frowns upon, and associates a certain stigma to those who identify themselves as LGBTQ—the ruling is being celebrated by activists, Bollywood celebrities, public personalities and people across the spectrum, thus highlighting the winds of change in our society.
This poses a challenge, most of all, to Christian educational institutions in India, especially those who identify themselves within the Evangelical ethos. How will Christian education, and more specifically Christian theological education, stay relevant in a world with all its vagaries, where meaning and morality are relative, and anything that remotely resembles a rule is often disregarded as archaic and oppressive. As our hallowed halls of education, especially within the colleges and universities across the country, become increasingly pluralistic—not just in terms of faith, but in terms of ethics as well—how can we impart the increasingly unpopular biblical ideals to a generation that seeks to do anything but accept them?
Theological Critical Realism offers a useful framework for both theological studies (Bible colleges and seminaries) as well as practical Christian living. It helps theological students remain faithful to the Biblical witness, even in the face of brutal and often incoherent criticism against Evangelical Christianity, and yet remain grounded in the reality of the world they live in.
It will be a good starting point to remember that this is, however, not a new phenomenon. It is generally understood that the development of university as a formal institution of learning is rooted in the Catholic monastic schools of Europe, where the monks and the nuns taught classes and passed on theological tenets, among other things, to the learners in the Medieval Ages. These bastions of Christian learning turned secular and, more importantly, became progressively atheistic-agnostic in their leanings under the influence of the Enlightenment and its philosophers like Voltaire. But the influence of the Enlightenment was not limited to the universities. In the wake of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, theological liberalism and various tools such as Source Criticism were attempts to reconcile and relate the theological enterprise to the world around. Open Theism, which posits an idea of God that is lesser than what is biblical, is exemplary of the different movements today that try to relate Christianity to the world of ideas we live in. From an ethical perspective, a similar movement can be seen in the way some churches, Christian leaders, authors and theologians not only accept alternate (and traditionally unacceptable) lifestyles but also advocate them. While these are certainly not acceptable to Evangelicals in any way or form, the other extreme of burying one’s head in the sand and pretending that this doesn’t exist, or disregarding it as irrelevant is also not an ideal way forward. The way forward is in a relatively lesser known, and yet very important, movement called Theological Critical Realism, especially because of its practical implications.
Theological Critical Realism as a theological method was used by eminent Christian theologians such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne and, in recent times, Alister McGrath. It can be traced back to the thought of scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi who immensely influenced the eminent Scottish Protestant theologian Thomas F. Torrance. The aim of these theologians, many of whom are scientists, is to correlate the language of science and Christian theology, and to show how we can talk about God in a scientific way. N.T. Wright, noted biblical scholar and New Testament theologian, in his landmark book The New Testament and the People of God, defines Theological Critical Realism as “a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”).”
What Wright and others are essentially trying to say is that the appropriate way of knowing and understanding a reality is to engage with it in a dynamic and constructive way, in a way that interacts with the reality, rather than in a static way by just conceptualizing it. And a Christian is always engaged in two realities at any given point in time—the reality of the world he/she lives in and the reality of God, mediated to us through Jesus Christ, as we see in the Scripture. The two classic mistakes committed by evangelical theologians and Christians around the world are these—thinking of God in a static, conceptual way and thus not engaging with what the Scripture says in a real and dynamic way or eschewing an active engagement in the world, not recognizing and acknowledging the rapidly changing trends and times we live in. This leads to two kinds of problems—it can lead to a world where Christians refuse to believe that the earth revolves around the Sun or where they feel that it’s within their right to wage war against the heathen in the name of God.
Theological Critical Realism offers a very useful framework for both theological studies (Bible colleges and seminaries) as well as practical Christian living. It helps theological students remain faithful to the Biblical witness, even in the face of brutal and often incoherent criticism against Evangelical Christianity, and yet remain grounded in the reality of the world they live in, understanding its fragile and fickle nature. All these special-interest and secular groups often accuse Evangelical Christianity of being intolerant and discriminatory, while they themselves do the same by not allowing for the distinct and different voices of those who disagree with them. We, as Evangelical Christians, must not follow the same path.